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´╗┐Title: A Matter of Honor - A Terran Empire novel
Author: Wilson, Ann
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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A Terran Empire novel

by Ann Wilson

Copyright (C) 1992 by Ann Wilson


Irschcha, 2569 CE

Chaos take those Imperial schools anyway!

It was all their fault, Thark growled to himself, increasing his pace
as the sleek lines of his ship came into view.  Not even the prospect
of flying the Prowler lightened his mood this time.  The Chaos-loving
schools had done too much!  They were fine for the unTalented, like
humans and now Traiti, but they had probably precipitated a disaster
here on Irschcha.  Their damnable stress on Imperial rather than
planetary allegiance was to blame; it had deprived him of the strongest
Talent to appear in many years, Corina Losinj--and it would cost Corina
her life soon, if it hadn't already.

He was practically running toward his small ship now, dignity forgotten
in the need for haste.  "Dammit all to hell!" he burst out, the human
curse seeming oddly appropriate under the circumstances.  If the Terran
Empire hadn't discovered Irschcha for another century, or if Chear
hadn't chosen to affiliate with it, none of this would have had to

As Thark neared the ship, he forced his thoughts and emotions under
control, away from such useless speculations.  He was High Adept of the
White Order now, not Chear, and it was up to him to correct Chear's
error.  His calm voice did not betray his feelings when he returned the
salute of the gray-kilted Sanctioner standing at the foot of the
boarding ramp.

"Greetings, Master Thark," the Sanctioner said.

"Greetings, Underofficer Jamar.  What is Prowler's status?"

"Senior Adepts Valla and Kainor are already on board, as is the rest of
my squad.  The ship is ready for takeoff."

"Excellent," Thark said.  "Then we leave immediately.  We have no time
to waste."  He hurried up the ramp into the ship.

Jamar followed, stopping to raise the ramp and close the lock.  Thark
went on to the cockpit and secured himself in the pilot's seat,
scanning his instrumentation.  He was an accomplished pilot, and rather
to his surprise he found that the pre-liftoff routine did ease his
mood, even under such unpleasant circumstances.

His ears went forward in satisfaction.  Jamar had surpassed himself;
the only thing left was to alert his crew and passengers for immediate
takeoff. He did so, then fed full power to the null-gravs.  There was
no need to wait for clearance; this was a private field, one of his
prerogatives as High Adept, and the Prowler, as his ship, had an
automatic clearance superseding any other in this system save an
Imperial Navy ship.

As soon as they were a safe ten diameters out from Irschcha he
activated the hyperdrive, then unstrapped himself and rose.  Prowler's
course to Rendavi, the Crusade leaders' rendezvous, had been fed into
the navigation computer several days ago and been updated automatically
every hour since.

He started to leave the cockpit.  Once the transition into hyperspace
had been made, there was no need for a pilot until it was time to
out-transition and land.

Still--at the moment, he really didn't feel like talking to his
lieutenants.  He returned to the controls and sat down, staring into
the blank viewscreen and visualizing the morning's unexpected, perhaps
disastrous, developments.  Perhaps if he had handled things
differently . . .

      *      *      *      *      *

He had spent most of the week arranging things so he would be free all
day today, knowing such things would not be possible for much longer.
The weather had cooperated almost as if it were intelligent and sensed
the importance of this meeting.  Although it was still early spring,
the day was a brilliant one, the temperature a comfortable fifteen
degrees.  He had taken advantage of that, deciding to have Corina's
final lesson out on the sundeck.

He took several seating cushions outside and arranged them so the sun
would warm them, yet not glare into his or Corina's eyes.  Then he
leaned back on one set of the cushions to wait for her.  Relaxing
almost totally, he watched a small cloud drifting in the clear green
sky.  The sun's gentle warmth on his fur was thoroughly enjoyable.  It
was indeed a pleasant change, he mused, to be able to relish such a day
with no duties to interfere.  His position as High Adept made such
luxuries all too rare.

Corina's lessons were a self-imposed duty, one he was pleased he had
assumed.  He was looking forward to her initiation into the White
Order, and the fact that he had trained her himself would make that
doubly enjoyable.

It was fortunate that Corina was available to the Order at all.  Her
Talent had been deeply latent, not developing until quite late.
Because of that, she had been missed by the Order's usual pre-school
testing.  That, Thark thought, still bitter, was one of the few things
the Empire's very presence had not changed.  Although the examiner had
believed she had sensed something, Corina had been unable to receive
even the simplest thoughts, and had not had even a trace of mental

She had been seventeen, close to eighteen years old by the new Imperial
Standard measure, when she had found herself beginning to pick up
thoughts. She had gone, naturally enough, to a local Order chapter for
help and possible training.  The chapter had reported it to him,
knowing he would be interested; when Talent appeared so late it was
almost always minimal, usually only telepathy and a weak mind-screen,
and the tester had been astonished at Corina's strength.

Thark had been surprised himself when he scanned her.  It was then that
he had decided to take her as his private student.  Four years'
training had brought out her potential, the power he had sensed she
should be able to control, when they met.  It would be formally
recognized soon, when she was initiated; then Thark could bring her
into the Prime Chapter, where the Order could make full use of her
Talents.  He had no intention whatever of letting them go to waste.
Senior Adept Corina of the White Order, he thought--yes, it had a
pleasant ring.  He and the others of the Prime Chapter already thought
of her that way, used her last name only when formality required it.

He caught sight of her then, and watched her come up the rubberoid walk
to his raised sundeck.  As usual, she was precisely on time.  And she
certainly wasn't difficult to spot; all her kilts were bright, but the
red-and-gold one she favored and was wearing today was positively
gaudy.  Urr, perhaps her taste would improve as she matured.  He looked
down at his own kilt, a conservative dark blue that went well with the
tawny shade of his fur. That, with its sporran, was one of the few
human innovations he appreciated.

Corina purred softly in pleasure when she saw Thark out on the sundeck.
Truly, this weather was too good to waste any of it indoors, especially
at this time of year.  He stood as she approached.

"Good day, Master Thark," she said with a slight bow, her hands open
and raised to shoulder level.

Thark returned the formal bow.  "Good day, Student Losinj.  Be

Formalities were certainly briefer since Irschcha had joined the
Empire, Thark thought.  He wasn't sure yet whether he approved of that
or not.  They had been time-consuming, but they had also given life a
certain grace that now seemed lacking, and had provided a social
lubricant that Irschchans, in his opinion, needed.  He could be wrong,
though, he thought as he returned to his cushions.

Corina sat facing him.  "What is today's lesson, Master?"

"At this stage, it is up to you to tell me.  Further training will be
directed to any area in which you feel deficient."

Her mind-shield was down, so he could sense, as well as hear, her
surprise.  "I do not understand."

"The only thing you truly require now is more confidence in yourself.
Otherwise you are fully ready for initiation, and I would like to see
that take place as soon as possible."

Corina shook her head slowly.  "I do not feel ready to take on such
responsibilities, Master.  I have not had the psychological preparation
of those who have attended Order schools."

"Your feelings are understandable," Thark said sympathetically.  "You
know, however, that you already have as much power and control as any
Senior in the Prime Chapter."

"Urrr . . ."  She hesitated.  "You may be correct.  I did stalemate
Senior Valla in our last practice session."

"Yes, she told me about it.  She was quite pleased.  She and Kainor
agree with me that you are ready, and if you are willing, they have
asked to stand as your sponsors."

"I would be most honored to have them as sponsors," Corina said,
inclining her head.  "What do you plan for me after initiation?"

"I want to bring you into the Prime Chapter, where one with your amount
of Talent belongs.  As for a specific job, we think such Talent, in
conjunction with your other abilities, can best be utilized as a roving
supervisor in Valla's Intelligence Division."

Corina considered that.  It would be a most interesting job, she had no
doubt.  The Intelligence Division got the most difficult cases the
Sanctioners had to cope with, and since they were Irschcha's military,
as well as its police, the variety of such cases was truly remarkable.
It was tempting, though she questioned whether she would be able to do
well at it.  "I have not yet finished school," she objected.

"I have not forgotten.  Until you graduate, you will work as Valla's
assistant after class.  She will train you for the job."

"Yes, Master, I believe I would like that.  But the Prime Chapter . . ."

"You will not be expected to participate fully until you do graduate,
Corina.  By that time you should be sure enough of yourself to function
properly as a Senior."

"Under those conditions, I can honorably agree."

"Excellent!"  Thark let his pleasure show.  "As part of your further
development, I would like you to do some teaching.  Through teaching
others, you will learn more yourself--and more of yourself."

"That I will do gladly.  I do not feel as fully qualified as I should

"Perhaps not, but your Talent is truly remarkable."  Thark purred.  By
the time he was ready to step down, she should be capable of taking
over leadership of the Order.  By then, if his Crusade were successful,
it would have taken over rule of the Empire from the unTalented humans.
The end of the Traiti War made that a probability in the near future.

Humans weren't stupid, he thought.  In fact, some were quite
intelligent.  And the Empire was, as far as it went, a fairly good
basis for government.  It was simply that those with Talent had
superior abilities, thus were better qualified to rule.  And to rule,
the Order must rebel.

He had not been fully shielded, he realized when he saw the look on
Corina's face.  "What Crusade?" she asked curiously.

Thark felt her probing for more information, and reinforced his shield.
"Do not concern yourself with that," he advised.  "You should know
nothing about it until after your initiation."

"Why not?"

"Because it is Order business, and you are not yet sworn to the Order."

"Oh."  She seemed to accept that, but Thark was familiar with her
curiosity, and it would be no surprise to him if she kept trying to
find out. He would have to be careful to keep his shield up.

"All I can tell you now," he said, hoping to ease that curiosity, "is
that it will bring proper symmetry to the Cosmos."

That statement served only to make Corina even more curious.  Thark had
seemed preoccupied for the last half year, and so had the other Seniors
she knew.  It was clear that something was going on; she had sensed it
for some time.  She had asked nothing about what she felt, knowing that
Thark was reluctant to discuss it.  Now, though, it appeared that
whatever this "Crusade" was, it concerned her own future.  That fact,
she felt, gave her the right to know about it.

She probed at Thark's shield again, but he was too strong for her to
penetrate it.  All she knew was what she had overheard, and even then
she had gotten little information.  Only the term "Crusade," the fact
that she was somehow involved, and a mixed feeling of obligation and
impending triumph. But what kind of triumph, and over what?  Or . . .

"Is it something that will affect the Empire?" she asked.

"Something that will improve it," Thark replied.  "You must admit it is
not perfect--"

He was interrupted by a mindcall from Valla, head of the Sanctioners
and his chief lieutenant.  *What is it, Thark?  I felt your

*Not now, Valla!*

Her thought cut off, but too late; the momentary distraction had
enabled Corina to break through his lowered shield.  He could see, as
well as feel, her reaction, and it was what he had feared.

Corina was both shocked and angry.  Shocked that Thark would even plan
such a rebellion, and angry that he had expected her to participate.
Thark had not been raised as an Imperial citizen; she had, and could
not understand his desire for change.  Yet she liked him as a friend as
well as respecting him as a teacher--she did not want to believe he
would actually go through with such a thing.

Her thoughts were a turmoil of conflicting loyalties.  The Empire, she
had been taught and firmly believed, was what kept the peace between
planets and systems, while allowing maximum freedom on-planet through
the ruling nobility.  Thark retained his title of High Adept, though he
could have claimed the title of Planetary Baron, and was virtually as
powerful as he would have been before the Empire.

Why, then, did he want change?  Perhaps that should not concern her as
much as the mere fact that he did.  She was due for initiation; in
honor, could she oppose him?  Or was it her duty as an Imperial citizen
to do so? She was bound by no oaths, and so free to choose.  Blades!
she thought angrily.  Why did Thark put her in such a position?

Perhaps if she got more information she would know what to do.  Keeping
her voice steady, she asked, "Is such a rebellion not simple treason,
Master Thark?  Will it not destroy the Empire, rather than improve it?"

Thark looked closely at his student.  It was natural for her to be
concerned; he himself was not particularly fond of the idea of the
bloodshed that now appeared necessary.  At the very minimum, the
Emperor, Rangers, and nobility would have to be eliminated, and he knew
full well that there would be others.

"It might be so construed, but it is something that cannot be helped,"
he said calmly.  "You should be able to understand that for yourself.
Look at the peace and balance that rule by the Order has brought
Irschcha since it was founded, then look at the constant unrest and
controversy elsewhere in the Empire.  Which is better?"

Corina shifted uncomfortably.  "Peace, of course."  She hesitated, then
said, "But rebellion is no way to bring true peace.  And there is a
great difference between ruling one race on one planet and ruling an
Empire of thousands of worlds."

"Less than you might think," Thark replied, pleased at her composure.
A difference of opinion need not be disorderly, and her temper at times
like this was uncertain.  "We need only replace key people with our own
most strongly Talented initiates.  The bureaucracy and computers will,
as they do now, handle day-to-day operations."

"And because you possess the strongest Talent, naturally you will
become Emperor?"  There was a distinct trace of sarcasm in that

"Of course," Thark said, mildly surprised and ignoring the tone of her
voice.  "It is not something I particularly want to do--"  He broke
off, looked at her sharply.  "It is indeed unfortunate that you did not
attend an Order school."

He probed gently.  She was angry, of course; he could tell that even
through her shield, but she seemed to be keeping her emotions under
tight control.  Good.  She might still be amenable to reason.

"I have told you many times," he said patiently, "that possession of
Talent carries with it a certain responsibility.  We of the Order are
able to use our Talent to govern better than do those who lack it.
Honor demands that we do so.  We cannot avoid our duty."

He could feel her rejection of that argument even before she spoke.
"That may apply to Irschcha, but it is obviously not true of humans.
They did quite well before MacLeod found us, despite their lack of
Talent.  You must agree that things have improved for Irschcha since we
joined the Empire."

"Some things, yes," Thark admitted.  "We have hyperships now, like my
Prowler; we are benefitting from trade with other systems; we are
starting out-system colonies ourselves; we have people in the Imperial

"And in the Emperor's own Palace Guard!" Corina interrupted.

"But that is not enough!"

"Is that not considerable progress since they found us only forty-three
Standard years ago?  Can you truly expect more so soon?  We are only a
small part of the Empire."

"I cannot accept that," Thark growled.  "We are being humiliated!  We
must even use human units of measurement.  Standard years?  Terran
years is what you mean!"


"We have no one in the nobility except for myself," Thark continued,
ignoring her attempted protest.  "No Irschchan is a Ranger, none
command major military ships or bases.  Does that seem equitable to

"It does not seem inequitable, simply on the basis of numbers," Corina
pointed out.  "Humans occupy thousands of worlds, the Traiti hundreds,
while we occupy only this one completely.  And it is possible they have
talents or abilities we lack."

Thark groaned inwardly.  This was not going well, but she was too
valuable to lose; he would have to keep trying.

"They do not," he told her.  "I have scanned a large number of humans,
tourists and administrative officials alike.  They have no indication
of Talent or anything else unusual, except perhaps an occasional trace
of screen. They are exactly what they seem.  All they have is a very
sophisticated technology."

"Perhaps that is their talent," Corina said.  "It was they who found
us; we did not find them.  Or perhaps their special ability is even
rarer with them than Talent is with us."

"If that is the case," Thark replied, "it would seem they either cannot
use it to govern properly, or refuse to do so.  In either case, our
duty is clear."

He was silent then, perceiving her need to think.

Corina was deeply disturbed.  Thark's arguments were plausible, at
least on the surface, but she found them unsatisfying.  Tourists and
administrative officials were not the Empire's best examples,
especially the tourists.  Thark claimed his motive was
unselfish--duty--and she knew him well enough to believe he truly
thought so.  But what if he was wrong?

Chaos take it!  Peace was important, and she could see it as a
result--perhaps--of Thark's rebellion.  But first there would be much
death and destruction.  With the Traiti War barely over, what Thark
planned might as easily trigger a disaster as lead to the peace he

It was a difficult decision; no matter what she did, people would be
killed.  Yet Thark himself had taught her that her responsibility to
Irschcha ought to be paramount, and that meant she had no choice but to
support the Empire that had done so much for it.  In honor, that was
the only way she could decide.  Irschcha had made more progress in its
forty-three years since joining the Empire than in any span ten times
that long under the Order.

Once her decision was made, she did not hesitate.  She stood, then said
with a return to strict formality, "I can regard your Crusade as
nothing but treason, Thark.  I can no longer call you Master."

Thark also rose, nodding his acceptance.  At least, he thought, she was
acting as he had taught her, with honor and decorum.  "Then we are
enemies.  I truly regret that, necessary as it is.  Will you at least
give me your word that you will not go to the Imperial authorities?"
He knew the answer even as he asked the question, but it was a
propriety he had to observe.

"I cannot do that," Corina said.  "You have taught me too well.
Failing to act now, on what I am positive is right, would be as
dishonorable as treason itself."

"It would indeed," Thark replied with regret.  "You leave me no choice.
I cannot kill a guest in my home; to do that would bring only shame.
However, I cannot let you live to reach the Imperials with this
information, either. And I most certainly will not allow you to aid
their cause."

Fear almost weakened Corina's resolve.  She did not want to die, but
death seemed unavoidable.  If she thought about it too much, though,
she might give in, and that would be worse.  "I must try," she said
steadily.  "What of my family?"

"The decision was yours, not theirs," Thark replied.  "It will not be
held against them.  If you wish, I will give them your soul-blade."

"I am not yet dead," Corina said, caressing the dagger's hilt.  She
turned and left.

"No," Thark said softly, watching her leave.  "Not yet."  As soon as
she was out of sight, he mindcalled his lieutenant.  *Valla?  I have a
job for you.*

*Yes?* came the calm reply.

*Corina Losinj must be eliminated.  She broke through my shield when
your call distracted me, and discovered the Crusade.  She has just
left, and is going to report to the Imperials.*

*Corina!*  Valla's thought was surprised.  *But I thought--*  She
hesitated.  *Are you sure, Master?  Why would she--*

*Apparently her lack of Order schooling.  I cannot fault her; it is
simply that her loyalties lie with the Empire rather than with us.
Still, she is a danger which must be eliminated.*

*Understood, Master.  She was a good friend, and most Talented.*  Valla
had felt the regret in Thark's mental touch, and shared it, but there
was no time for emotion now.  *This is an unfortunate happening.  I
will take care of it.*

*With your usual efficiency, of course.  But not personally.  Arrange
it.  Tell the Sanctioners she is wearing that red-and-gold kilt.  Then
bring Kainor and meet me at my ship.  She is forcing me to speed up the
timetable; the Prime Chapter and other Crusade leaders are to gather as
soon as possible on Rendavi.  Inform your people.*

*How do you wish her to die?*

*She has betrayed her Talent; let her be destroyed by Talent.  Tell
your executioner to use darlas.*  Thark regretted that, in a way; death
by telepathic attack was exquisitely painful.  But it was just, and it
was honorable.

*What of her family?* Valla asked.

*They are oathbound.  Disregard them.*

*Yes, Master Thark.  Are there further instructions?*


Thark broke the contact, then made three more briefer ones before his
general broadcast to the off-planet Crusade leaders.  Once they had
been informed of the accelerated schedule, he was free to leave for his
private spacefield and the Prowler.

      *      *      *      *      *

Thark's attention focused again on his immediate surroundings, the
Prowler's control room.  In retrospect, he was as sure of Corina's
thoughts as if he had read them.  He laid his ears back in a frown.
No, he could see no way he might have changed the morning's events.  It
was most regrettable, both the loss of such a Talent and Corina's
death.  He was still quite fond of her.

But enough of these useless memories, Thark told himself sternly.  What
had happened could not be changed.  He should join his passengers.  He
rose, giving his instrument panel an automatic scan as he rose.  Urrr--
the proximity alarm!  He'd forgotten to turn it on, a mistake he'd not
have made but for Corina's defection.  He sat back down and corrected
his error, wondering if there were any others he'd made in his chagrin
over Corina's betrayal.

      *      *      *      *      *

Corina was thinking in rapid, frightened bursts as she left Thark's
home.  She was certain he would lose no time in sending the
executioners after her, probably Sanctioners.  She was not particularly
optimistic about making it safely to the Planetary Palace and the
Imperial authorities.

Thark's home was ten kilometers north of the capital city, MacLeod's
Landing.  It would be a long, time-consuming walk, but what choice did
she have?  With Sanctioners on her trail, using her identification to
call for public transportation at one of the hailing posts would be a
fatal mistake.

The occasional clumps of bushes bordering the street's short-cropped
grass gave her an idea.  She was fairly conspicuous; there were few
pedestrians this far from the city, and as Thark had told her often
enough, she did dress rather gaudily.  She made her way into one of the
clumps, took off her kilt, turned it inside-out, and put it back on.
It was a youngling's trick, but . . .  She surveyed the results.  Not
good, she decided.  Still, it might help; at least the solid maroon
lining was a little less gaudy than red and gold plaid.

She returned to the street, glad for the soft grass that had replaced
pavement when null-grav craft came into common use, and resumed her
walk toward the city.  As small as MacLeod's Landing was by human
standards, it was already large by Irschchan, and still growing.  If
she made it that far, there was at least a chance she could avoid the
Sanctioners in the crowds, and reach the Palace.

She had been walking for perhaps five minutes when a Sanctioner patrol
cruiser sped past her, toward Thark's home.  The wind of its passage
ruffled her fur as well as her kilt, but they seemed to pay no
attention to her, for which she was grateful.

Still, it was what she had hoped.  If she were obvious enough, the
Sanctioners should think she had nothing to hide.  Between that and her
kilt-flipping, unless she ran into a Sanctioner who knew her well
enough to identify her by the pattern of her mind-shield, she might
make it.

Bare minutes later, though, her hopes fell as she heard the patrol
cruiser approaching again.  It stopped in front of her and three
gray-kilted Sanctioners got out.

Besides the usual sporran and soul-blade everyone carried, the
Sanctioners wore their collars of office, gleaming gold bands snug at
their throats.  And their blasters, normally worn on belt clips, were
all pointed in her direction.  Pitting around the muzzles showed
Corina, as if she had needed the confirmation, that the weapons had all
seen use.

She made her body relax.  These Sanctioners were big, and they were
treating her as cautiously as they would a dangerous criminal.  From
the Order's point of view, though, that was now an accurate

"All right, Losinj," the oldest one said.  "Hands on your head, and do
not move."

Corina obeyed, moving slowly to give herself time to think.  These
three would have tight mind-shields, and anyway, the most she had been
able to handle in practice was two--which Thark, of course knew.  She
was in no position to fight.  Her only chance was to get them to relax,
drop their shields voluntarily.  Unless they were simply going to kill
her here . . .

Which they were apparently not going to do.  Two stood back, perhaps
three meters from her and an equal distance from each other, their
blasters steady on target.  The leader, staying carefully out of their
lines of fire, approached her.  He unclipped the soul-blade, sheath and
all, from her belt and attached it to his own.

"It will be returned intact to your family for their Hall of Memories
after your execution, as Senior Valla has ordered," he told her.

"My thanks to Senior Valla," Corina said, her voice shaky.  So Thark
had turned her case over to Valla.  That wasn't good news at all.  She
knew Valla well, had in fact gotten much training from her, and they
were friends, though not close ones.  But Valla didn't let friendship
interfere with her work, and she had a well-earned reputation for
thoroughness and efficiency.  At least, Corina thought, Valla did not
dishonor her by ordering her blade broken.

The Sanctioner moved behind her.  "Put your hands down, behind your

She obeyed, felt cool metallic bands close around her wrists.  The
Sanctioner took hold of her arm just above the elbow.

"Into the cruiser, youngling."

She got in, was seated between him and another Sanctioner, both with
blasters aimed at her.  The third took his place at the controls,
heading them toward MacLeod's Landing and Sanctioner headquarters.  She
put her sort-of-a-plan into action; as uncertain as it was, she had
been unable to think of anything else.

Huddling up, she let her mind-shield relax slightly.  As the cruiser
picked up speed, she felt one of the Sanctioners try a probe.  Don't
fight it, she told herself, use it.  Sanctioners were Talented, of
course, but they didn't have the training or control she had gotten
from Thark.  They shouldn't be able to detect her attempt at deception.

She shivered, letting the shield drop even further and allowing her
fear, only partially falsified, to seep through.  If she could convince
them she was terrified, too paralyzed with panic to be a danger, she
might have a chance.

The Sanctioner leader looked at her for a moment, then said, with some
sympathy, "You seem harmless enough, hardly a dangerous criminal.  Why
does Senior Valla want you dead, youngling?"

"I do not know," Corina lied, projecting more fright.  "I mean . . . I
have done nothing . . ."  She let her voice trail off.

"Urrr, there is no need to worry," the officer said, apparently trying
to reassure her.  "The executioner here is good.  He will give you a
swift death, and it will be one with honor; she has ordered you killed
with darlas."

It didn't reassure Corina, and she let that show in her expression.
She looked up at the Sanctioner leader, shivering again.  "But . . . I
don't want to die!  I have done nothing to die for!"

"Youngling, it is not for me to question Senior Valla's orders, but I
admit I do no like this assignment.  My own girl-child is about your

"Then--"  Sudden hope dawned.

"No, youngling."  The Sanctioner's voice was full of pity, but remained
firm.  "My honor lies in my duty, and that duty requires me to take you

Corina slumped, fear and a sense of hopelessness seeming worse after
that surge of false hope.  Her shield was almost all the way down.  She
dared not probe at the Sanctioners to see if they believed her; somehow
that did not seem to be the sort of thing a frightened prisoner would
do.  She could only hope her plan was working, but the closer they got
to the city and Sanctioner headquarters, the less confidence she had in

The trip ended in deep silence.  By the time they pulled up in front of
the large stone building that housed the capital's Sanctioners, Corina
was on the ragged edge of desperation.  It must have appeared more like
sheer terror to the officer beside her, because he dismissed the other
two.  "Go on in. She will give me no trouble; she is too afraid."

They obeyed.  As they entered the building, the leader climbed out of
the cruiser, clipped his blaster to his belt, and extended a hand to
help his trembling prisoner.

That was when Corina struck.  He had relaxed his shield slightly,
thinking her powerless, and she had no trouble stunning him with
darlas. Awkwardly, hampered by the way her hands were fastened and by
her need for haste, she dug through his sporran for the handcuff key
and fumbled it into the lock.  The cuffs opened after what seemed
hours, but could have been only seconds.  Then she retrieved her
soul-blade from his belt, half tempted to use it on him.  She refrained;
he had pitied her, and the killing would not be justified.  Self-defense
was commendable, but she could not kill one who was unable to defend
himself.  She did, however, increase the mental pressure on him enough
to insure he would remain unconscious for at least an hour.  Then she
sensed one of the other Sanctioners returning, wondering idly what was
keeping Garal and the prisoner.

She straightened and left at a fast walk, was around the corner and out
of sight before he spotted Garal's unconscious form.  She tightened her
shield, feeling probes as the Sanctioner alerted the others.  Although
she knew it would make her conspicuous, she broke into a run.  She had
to reach the park that encircled the Planetary Palace before the
Sanctioners caught her again.  That was Imperial territory; Irschchan
jurisdiction ended at the park's edge.  She just hoped that legality
would stop the Sanctioner.

The park was in sight, less than a hundred meters away, but the
Sanctioner who had found Garal was fast closing the distance between
them. Corina risked a quick glance back, saw him stop, crouch, and draw
his blaster. She increased her speed somehow and started dodging.  It
might take her a few seconds longer to reach the park, but she would be
harder to hit.

She heard the frying noise of the blaster, felt heat as the bolt singed
fur on her right arm.  A second shot missed completely as she dove into
the park and rolled into a stand of purple-leafed bushes.  A third bolt
went overhead, then the Sanctioner returned the blaster to his belt and
called to her.

"You have made it to Imperial territory, Losinj, but you are not safe
yet!  Even if you manage to get past Entos and into the Palace, we can
have you extradited as a common criminal, for assaulting a Sanctioner.
Think about that!"

"Thank you for the information," Corina called back, shaken but not,
she hoped, letting it show in her voice.  Entos!  Valla must have
anticipated her escape from the Sanctioners, Corina thought, if she had
sent her best killer to attempt an intercept in the park itself.

Then she realized that wasn't necessarily the case; more likely it was
only Valla's thoroughness, her reluctance to leave anything she thought
important to only one group.  Still, using Entos against a student
showed her how seriously Valla regarded this; it was rather like using
a blaster to eliminate an annoying insect.

There was no point in being particularly cautious, she knew, so she
hurried directly toward the Palace.  She had met Entos several times,
often enough that he knew her both by sight and by mind pattern, even
when she was shielded.

She was almost at her objective--in sight of the main entrance, in
fact--when the anticipated attack came.  It started with a savage
mental thrust, powerful enough to penetrate her shield and drive her to
her knees. It didn't last; only Thark or another member of the Prime
Chapter, which Entos wasn't, could maintain that level of intensity for
long.  But by the time she had recovered enough to stand, shaking her
head to clear it, Entos was behind her.  She sensed a physical threat,
lunged to her left just in time to feel his dagger brush her fur rather
than bury itself in her back.

She scrambled to her feet, drawing her own blade and attempting a
mental counterattack.  It slowed Entos' next slash, but had no other
effect.  She stabbed at his upper arm, trying to cripple him, but he
parried skillfully.

"You fight well, youngling, even now," he said, then tried another
intense mental thrust.  It was less powerful than the first had been,
and Corina managed to block it, though she was less successful parrying
his simultaneous dagger thrust at her throat.  She did avoid most, but
it was enough to draw blood; she felt warmth seeping into the fur at
the base of her neck.

Corina didn't reply, saving her breath for the fight.  They were
circling now, both looking for openings, when she saw a flicker of
motion from the direction of the Palace entrance.  She risked a quick
glance, saw it was the Imperial Marine guards running toward them and
drawing sidearms.

Entos obviously saw them as well, because he snarled and struck for her
again.  She was starting to parry when the Marines fired, and both
Irschchans fell.

      *      *      *      *      *

Thark finally came to the conclusion that if he had made any other
errors in his chagrin, he couldn't remember them.  And Prowler didn't
need him, while it would probably be wise to brief his chief aides
fully on Corina's defection, even though it was a strong probability
she was dead by this time.  He made his way to the ship's lounge,
thinking about the mistakes he had made with her--mistakes that would
have to be avoided in the future with others who had been taught in
Imperial schools.

The lounge was small--Kanchatka-class vessels had originally been
intended as couriers, not yachts--but it was quite comfortable, with
deep-pile carpeting, and a large viewscreen now displaying a sunset
landscape Valla was fond of.  She and Kainor started to rise as Thark
entered, but settled back at his gesture.

He paused at the service panel to dial three glasses of koril, the
fermented milk Irschchans drank as humans drank wine.  Carrying them,
he joined his aides, seating himself on the third pile of cushions at
the lounge's low table.

After the first silent, companionable sips, Thark began filling the
other two in.  It wasn't easy for any of them, though an outsider would
have thought them discussing abstractions.  Only Thark himself had been
truly close to Corina, but Kainor and Valla had known and liked her for
the four years since her Talent was discovered; her betrayal hurt.

When Thark was finished, Valla detailed the steps she'd taken to insure
the traitor's death, for Kainor's benefit.  That brought a trace of
amusement to his voice.  "Three Sanctioners, Valla?  And Entos?  I
should think either more than adequate to deal with her."

"Either should be," Valla agreed, "but you know I like to take
precautions, especially when it is so little trouble.  Should she by
some stroke of luck escape the Sanctioners, she will not escape Entos."

"True," Thark said.  It was unfortunate, he thought, that it had seemed
desirable to impose a communications blackout, including telepathy,
except in a major emergency or by messenger, but at present security
was more important than convenience--however good it would be to be
able to make definite, rather than tentative, plans.  Facts must be
accepted, though; they had insufficient data, so they simply had to
make do with what they did have.  "Even so, we do not yet have
confirmation.  I think we must plan for the possibility, remote as it
is, that she did escape both and make it to the Palace.  If the
Imperials are informed of even as little as she got from me, it could
hinder us."

"If you plan for that," Kainor said, "you will also have to assume a
Ranger will be involved within minutes, or at most hours."

"What--"  "A Ranger!"  Valla and Thark exclaimed as one.

"Yes.  Ranger James Medart arrived yesterday aboard the battle cruiser
Emperor Chang, and took a lander down to the Colvis Reserve."

"Why was I not informed?" Thark asked, forcing his voice to remain
steady.  A Ranger's interference, especially this early, could be

"Ranger Medart's orders, Master.  He is on convalescent leave,
recuperating from the injuries he sustained just prior to the end of
the war.  He did not wish to be bothered by official functions."

"If he is injured," Thark said thoughtfully, "he should be no problem
to eliminate."

"I said he is recuperating," Kainor corrected.  "I understand he is
still weak, but otherwise he is healthy enough.  It is unlikely to
affect him except to slow him in personal combat."

"And Rangers do not fight unless it cannot be avoided," Valla said.
"Does he have anyone with him?"

"I was not told, but most probably he does.  Since this is a peaceful
world and the Reserve is a resort area, I would assume him to be
accompanied by a token bodyguard--perhaps two to four Marines, not
enough to stop a determined killer."

"True," Valla agreed.  "Entos again, then, with four Sanctioners.  The
Sanctioners have enough Talent to take out two Marines each, so even if
our estimate is low, they should have no difficulty.  And whether
Medart fights or not, Entos will be able to give him a swift death."

Kainor nodded.  "After all, it is not their combat abilities that make
them so valuable to the Empire, even though Menshikov is the Empire's
greatest strategist.  It is their personalities and the way they

"Yes," Thark said.  "That much everyone knows.  But exactly what is it
about their personalities and thinking?  What is so unusual about them
that there are only ten Rangers, and none of those Irschchans?"

"Nine, since Tarlac's assassination," Kainor reminded him.  His ears
went back in a slight frown.  "Despite my investigations since the
Crusade was decided on, I have not been able to discover the actual
selection criteria. All I can tell you is what I have been able to
deduce from studying them and their accomplishments, and that certainly
cannot be taken as conclusive."

"Go ahead," Thark told him.  "I know you dislike making incomplete
evaluations, but there is no more time to complete that project.  An
incomplete evaluation is better than none at all, you must agree."

"I do--but keep in mind that it is incomplete."  Kainor shifted on his
cushions, then continued.

"First, their selection is based on a combination of factors, not a
single isolated characteristic.  Genius-level intelligence is of course
part of it, along with a generalist's wide range of interests and
abilities, and greater adaptability than normally appears even in
spacers.  They are also able to analyze situations, develop a solution
that seems improbable or impossible, and make it work--usually if not
always to the Empire's benefit."

"I have had little opportunity to study them," Valla said.  "Could you
be more specific?"

"Easily," Kainor replied.  "And Medart is a classic example, so I will
use him.  Among his other accomplishments, he was responsible for both
the successful human-Irschchan settlement of Ondrian and the end of the
Sandeman Incursion in Sector Five, which resulted in Subsector
Sandeman's joining the Empire."

"Which in turn led to a high percentage of their warriors in the
Imperial military or serving as contract police forces on various
worlds," Thark said.  "Extremely loyal military or police--but they are
Elnar's problem.  Continue."

"Yes, Master.  Valla, do you remember anything about either incident?"

"Almost nothing," Valla admitted.  "Until recently, I had very little
interest in Imperial news."

"And I would appreciate hearing about both with the information you
have that Imperial newscasts probably left out because humans would
take it as a given," Thark said.

Kainor sighed, something a number of Irschchans had picked up since
meeting humans.  "Very well.  The Ondrian situation, then.  During the
second year of the joint colony's existence, an Irschchan youngling was
exploring in the mountains alone, contrary to all colony rules.  He
vanished, and search parties found no trace of him.  He was presumed
dead after a standard week, due to the bitterly cold weather.

"It surprised everyone, to put it mildly, when he showed up in
excellent health a month after the search was abandoned.  That was not
all.  He had one of the mountain cloudcats with him, and thanks to his
Talent--so minimal the Order had not accepted him, but there--he had
managed to establish communications with her.  Very rudimentary ones,
to be sure, but quite adequate to establish their intelligence.

"That was a severe blow to the colony.  With the cloudcats proven to be
intelligent, Imperial law required that the colony be abandoned.
However, it is the only place that so-called 'miracle weed' can be
grown successfully.  It could not be obtained by trading, because the
cloudcats have no hands and no interest in farming.  Since miracle-weed
is the only source of several valuable pharmaceuticals including
rapid-heal, the Emperor sent Medart in to see if anything could be

"He somehow got the idea that the cloudcats originated in a warmer
climate than Ondrian's.  Nobody believed it, of course; geological
studies done when it was first discovered showed Ondrian's climate had
never varied enough to produce such an evolutionary difference.  And
with their lack of hands, they could not possibly have built spaceships
to bring them from another planet.

"It turned out, of course, that Medart was absolutely correct.  The
cloudcats--or perhaps I should say our young explorer's friend
Starflower--had learned to understand English, and could indicate a yes
or no answer to questions.  Medart talked to Starflower for several
days, and found out that they were in fact not only from a different
planet, but from a different system entirely.

"They had been transported to Ondrian more than ten thousand years ago
by beings they called simply the Others, who had discovered the
cloudcats' sun was about to go nova.  The cats elected to stay in the
same stellar neighborhood, but according to them the Others were
preparing to embark on a racial expedition of their own, one of
considerable magnitude.  From what Starflower told Medart, it seems
they left this galaxy entirely.

"Medart went back into the mountains with Starflower, remaining there
for two weeks.  When he returned, he had somehow gotten the cloudcats
to agree to let the colonists have free run of the equatorial zone,
though they must stay out of the mountains unless they are invited.  In
return, he gave the cats the right to travel on Imperial Navy ships at
any time.  So the Empire got its pharmaceuticals, and the cloudcats
seem more than pleased with the opportunity to indulge their curiosity.
A most economical solution, though I regret he did not see fit to
release the details of his negotiations."

Kainor rose and went to the service panel, returning with more koril
for each of them.  He handed out the glasses, sat back down, and took a
deep swallow before continuing.  "It is possible someone else could
have accomplished the same thing, as it is possible someone else could
have accomplished most things Rangers have.  They are mortals, after
all.  With one of them, however, if a problem is soluble, it will be

"And solved, as you say, to the Empire's benefit," Thark said.  "But
you give Medart credit for ending the Sandeman Incursion; I understood
it took five Rangers."

Kainor's ears twitched in amusement.  "Five were there, yes--but the
other four were part of Medart's solution, to give the Sandemans an
honorable reason to stop fighting rather than be annihilated.  Much of
this episode is either public record or not difficult to discover,
though parts are still obscure.

"Medart was not sent in until the Duke of Sector Five admitted her
inability to stop the Sandemans and requested Imperial assistance.
Medart took a fleet to the one world the Sandemans had made a
protectorate rather than conquering, stopping long enough en route to
capture several for study." Kainor paused briefly.  "You do know about
the genetic engineering that was done to create the Sandemans,
particularly their warriors?"

Both his listeners nodded.

"Good--but at the time, no one except the Sandemans themselves knew,
and they had no intention of divulging that information, especially the
weakness the engineers had intended as a control mechanism.  They
refused to cooperate, preferring to die of that weakness rather than
reveal to the enemy the ways they needed to use to live with it.

"One did in fact die, and others were succumbing when Medart was able
to deduce--a point I cannot make too strongly--that they were
engineered to fight, both physically and psychologically, and that less
than a week without some form of combat or lovemaking was enough to
make them ill, then kill them. He took steps to prevent further
deterioration in those who could still be helped, then granted a swift
death to two who could not be.

"When he arrived at the protectorate--an obscure world called Mjolnir--
he mindprobed a warrior who had sworn fealty to the Baron there, then
defeated in single combat the Warleader who wanted to take the world,
obliging him to protect it instead.  That probe verified Medart's
deductions and gave him enough more information on the Sandeman culture
that he persuaded the Baron to declare Mjolnir a neutral zone, invited
the Sandeman leaders to a conference--and called in the other four
Rangers, also with battle fleets, to provide a show of force.

"He made no threats, simply had the leaders given tours of the fleets,
and let them realize the alternatives: they could continue fighting, in
which case the Empire would have no choice but to destroy them, or they
could accept Imperial citizenship, in which case they would have to pay
for the damage they had caused, but there would be no other penalty
since they were doing what Terran engineers had created them to do.
Instead, they would be offered a chance for combat for the Empire,
using the ships and weapons they would otherwise have to fight.  Being
as intelligent as they are combat-loving, the Sandemans chose the
second alternative.

"Again, you see, an economical solution of considerable benefit to the
Empire.  The brief use of four other Rangers and a total of five battle
fleets saved months if not years of fighting, along with millions of

"And gained them the willing service of the most dangerous fighters in
the known universe," Thark added.  "All right, those examples
demonstrate the intelligence, adaptability, and problem-solving--but
surely such qualities are not as rare as the low number of Rangers

"In themselves, no," Kainor admitted.  "But those are only the most
obvious of the qualifications.  Another is that they must have no close
personal ties, including family; that eliminates many possible
candidates. All have applied for and been accepted by the main Imperial
Military Academy at the Palace Complex, though none has remained there
much beyond Test Week. And all, needless to say, are intensely loyal."
His ears twitched, this time in irritation.  "I am positive there are
other qualifications; as I said, I have been unable to discover the
actual criteria, which are known perhaps only to the Sovereign and
Rangers themselves."

Thark held back a growl.  "I understand that--still, can you deduce
from what data you do have why there are no Irschchan Rangers?"

Kainor shook his head slowly.  "Not with any degree of confidence," he
said.  "The only possibility I find marginally sound is that Irschchans
who have the requisite abilities also have Talent, meaning they join
the Order rather than entering Imperial service."

"I suppose that is possible," Thark said thoughtfully.  "If you are
correct, the lack of Irschchan Rangers will soon be rectified.  You
will have to find out all the requirements as soon as possible,
however.  Important as Talent is to one in such a position, they will
need the other, lesser, talents as well."


Corina woke with a splitting headache, the characteristic aftereffect
of being hit with a neural stunner.  Groaning, she opened her eyes and
found herself in what, except for the straps holding her in place, was
a fairly comfortable, if too large, armchair.  A Terran in Marine black
service dress uniform sat behind a large metal desk, holding a blaster
aimed casually in her direction.  Her soul-blade lay beside his left

She suppressed the rage she dared not show at that sight.  It had been
bad enough earlier, when the Sanctioner had taken her blade, but at
least he had been an Irschchan and understood its significance.  To a
Terran, it was nothing but a simple dagger, with no more personal
meaning than a kitchen knife.

Not that they could understand, she thought, forcing herself to calm.
They had no Talent, no way to sense the owner's mind-pattern, impressed
on the blade at an Irschchan's coming-of-age ceremony.

She could retrieve it telekinetically--that part of her Talent was
weak, but the blade was hers--then decided quickly against that idea.
The man holding the blaster did not look like the type to tolerate any
misbehavior from his prisoner, and she had no desire to test her
estimate of his character.

He gave her a few seconds to evaluate the situation before he spoke.
"Okay, you're awake.  Now tell me what the hell that was all about."

"He was trying to kill me," Corina replied.

"We guessed that much," the Terran said.  "I want to know why."

"May I know who you are?"

"Yeah, you people like formality, don't you?"  The man shrugged.  "Why
not?  I'm Major Patrick Dawson, Security Division of the Imperial
Marines, on temporary duty from the Emperor Chang.  You?"

Corina managed as much of a polite bow as she could.  "Greetings, Major
Dawson.  I am Corina Losinj, until today a student of High Adept Thark.
Entos was trying to kill me before I could report treason against the
Empire, in the form of a rebellion by the White Order.  Thark is
leading it himself."

Dawson's expression looked to Corina like a combination of astonishment
and disbelief.  "Rebellion?  The White Order against the whole Empire?
That's impossible."

"I assure you, Major, it is quite possible.  Or Thark believes it is,
which is effectively the same thing."

"Um."  Dawson was silent for a few seconds, then said, "Well, it sounds
crazy to me, but it isn't something we can risk not checking out."  He
holstered the blaster.  "The other one, Entos--is he in the Order?"
When Corina nodded, he punched a number on the desk intercom.

"Interrogation, Captain Daley."  Corina couldn't see the screen, but it
sounded like a human female.  "Oh, hi, Pat.  What can I do for you?"

"You could run a mindprobe on the other Irschchan who was brought in.
The one I'm interviewing claims the reason he was trying to kill her
was that he's involved in a treason plot."

"You got it," the woman said grimly.  "Do you want yours probed too?"
Dawson thought for a moment, then shook his head.  "By the time you're
done, Ranger Medart should be here, and he can make that decision--she
was the one being attacked, so the odds are she's innocent.  If that's
wrong, or if the Ranger wants her probed for more information, it can
be done once he's here."

"I copy.  I'll let you know what I find out."

"Appreciate it."  Dawson broke that connection, immediately punched in
another number.

"Communications, Commspec First Carlson, sir," came the reply.

"This is Major Dawson.  Can you get me Ranger Medart, Security

"It'll take a couple of minutes, sir.  I'll have to patch through the
Chang to his lander."

"That's fine--just do your best."

      *      *      *      *      *

Ranger James Medart was stretched out on a lawn lounger, basking in the
warmth of Irschcha's sun only meters from the lander that was now
serving him as a vacation cabin.  Convalescent leave had its good
points, he thought drowsily.  He hadn't been this relaxed since before
the war--and not often then.  Laying here in swim trunks, it was hard
to believe he'd been damn near torn in half not much more than two
months ago.

But he had been, trying to help one of the then-enemy, a gray-skinned
Traiti.  Oh, well.  The war was over, thanks to Steve Tarlac, and the
Traiti were Imperial citizens, while he was supposed to be
concentrating on recovering his strength.  He stood, called to the
lander.  "I'm going for a swim."

A blond head looked around the edge of the lander's open hatch.
"Right, sir.  I just got my suit on; I'll play lifeguard."

"Whatever you say, Nevan."  Medart sketched a salute, grinning at the
young Sandeman warrior who was one of his bodyguard. Then he turned,
taking a running dive into the Colvis Reserve's main attraction for
humans, Clear Lake.

He swam straight out, with a leisurely sidestroke that took him in the
direction of the resort across the lake.  He had no intention of going
that far, or of seeing anyone except his bodyguards; a week in a tank
of rapid-heal, followed by over a month of therapy and constant
attention, left him with a strong desire for some privacy.

He'd been swimming for perhaps half an hour, enjoying himself
thoroughly, when he heard Nevan calling him.  The warrior wouldn't
interrupt his swim without good reason; he waved acknowledgement and
headed for shore, wondering what was up.

Nevan didn't look too happy, the Ranger thought as he waded out of the
lake, and that was a bad sign.  "What is it?"

"A call from the Planetary Palace, sir, security priority.  Major
Dawson is on the screen."

"Damn.  All right."  Security priority was never good news; Medart
wondered just how bad it was this time.  He accepted the towel Nevan
was holding out, began drying himself as he went to the lander and
climbed in. Then he dropped the towel, grabbed his uniform shirt from a
hanger by the door, and put it on before going to the lander's
comscreen.  "What's up, Major?"

Dawson repeated what Corina had told him, adding, "Sergeant Orloff said
she was definitely the one being attacked, sir.  I asked for a
mindprobe to be run on the attacker."

Well, Medart thought with brief regret, there went his leave.  Couldn't
be helped, though.  "Good work.  Hold off on Losinj; I'd rather not
probe someone trying to help us unless there's no other choice."  He
grinned, wolflike.  "If somebody thinks she's worth killing to keep her
from us, she's got to be valuable--I'll be there in about two hours,
and I'll stop by Interrogation before I join you.  Medart out."

      *      *      *      *      *

Dawson switched off, looked at Corina.  "I'm curious about one thing.
Why didn't you call instead of coming in?  If you're right, we'd have
gotten the information sooner, and you'd have been safer; I could have
sent a squad of Marines to escort you here for protection.  You'd have
been in no danger."

"I am afraid that is not the case, Major.  In the first place, there
was no place I could call from.  In the second, if the Order wishes me
dead, there is no safety for me anywhere on Irschcha."

"I don't know," Dawson said skeptically.  "All I've really heard about
the White Order is that they rule this planet with some sort of strange
power they refuse to talk about.  I think you're underestimating the

"Talent is not discussed outside the Order, except with potential
initiates," Corina said.  "At least it has not been until now; I must
inform you of what they can do.  It is you who underestimate them."

Dawson shrugged.  "Maybe, maybe not.  Either way, I don't have the
authority to deal with a major rebellion; you might as well wait till
Ranger Medart gets here, and tell him."

Corina nodded, and Dawson went back to the report he'd evidently been
studying when she was brought in.  She tried a probe of him, finding a
weak, almost-nonexistent mind-screen.  It was not a real barrier, and
her reasons were compelling, so she probed deeper.  Human mind patterns
were too murky to make this sort of thing a pleasure, but she scanned
anyway, for information about this Ranger Medart.  She knew, as did
everyone, about Rangers in general--that they were the Sovereign's
representatives, wielding Imperial authority at need--but she had to
know about this specific one.

Dawson, unfortunately, knew little.  Although he did serve aboard
Medart's cruiser, he was not very familiar with the Command Crew or
Ranger. All she could get was his feeling of respect, bordering on
awe--much, she thought, the way she had felt about Thark until this

Dawson did not expect any trouble from the Order here inside the
Palace, she noted, and found herself agreeing.  Thark was not likely to
risk compromising the Crusade by a frontal attack now.  There would
probably be an attempt, though, to have her returned as a criminal, as
the Sanctioner had threatened.

Perhaps an hour passed before the intercom chimed.  Dawson answered,
and Corina overheard Captain Daley's report.

"Just finished that mind-probe you asked for, Pat.  He was trying to
kill Losinj, all right.  His orders came from Senior Valla; she told
him Losinj was betraying the Order.  He also knows about the existence
of a Crusade, which is what they call this rebellion.  I couldn't get
any details, though.  And when he woke up, he somehow managed to knock
out a couple of my technicians without even touching them.  I had to
hit him with another stunner, and I'm going to keep him under until I
get orders to the contrary."

"Uh-huh, that confirms what she told me.  He probably doesn't have
enough rank to know any details.  Was he the only one?"

There was a grim laugh from the intercom.  "Hardly!  From what I got,
every Order member on Irschcha is either out to kill her themselves or
report her whereabouts to the Sanctioners so one of them can do it."

"Thanks, Joanie, that's a big help."  Dawson switched off the intercom
and turned to Corina.  "That exonerates you, Ms. Losinj.  There's no
more need to confine you."  He touched a switch on the desk, and the
restraining straps retracted into the armchair.

"Since I am proven innocent, may I have my blade back?"  Corina
couldn't keep a note of pleading out of her voice.

Dawson looked at her sharply.  "It means that much to you?  Well, I
don't see why not; take it."

"I thank you."  Corina retrieved the blade, ran her fingers gently
along it before returning it to its sheath, and resumed her seat.  She
sensed the Marine's puzzlement, and decided she should try to explain.
"It is a part of me, in a way.  Having it in someone else's possession
makes me quite uncomfortable."

Dawson shook his head.  "I don't understand.  I know it means you're an
adult, but it's just a knife."

"It is more," Corina said, her ears twitching.  "My mind pattern--" She
broke off at Dawson's blank look.  "It is an Irschchan thing," she said
apologetically.  "I fear I cannot explain it well."

"Or I don't have the background to understand."  Dawson gave her a
lopsided smile.  "Ranger Medart will; whether or not I do isn't really
important."  He turned his attention back to his report.

Corina took that opportunity to think.  She was, she had to admit to
herself, still more than a little frightened.  It was less fear for her
life now, as it had been when the Sanctioners captured her; it was more
nervous apprehension about her future.  She could not remain on
Irschcha, she knew. If she did, as she had told Dawson, she would be

But then where could she go?  What could she do?  Her peaceful life had
not prepared her for this kind of situation, suddenly caught in the
midst of a rebellion.  Things were happening too fast, overwhelming
her.  She wasn't sure what to expect from the Ranger, either.  He'd
said she had to be valuable; what had he meant?

Urr . . . there was nothing she could do now but wait, as patiently as
she could, until he arrived.

      *      *      *      *      *

The next hour went slowly.  Corina's patience, not one of her strongest
points at best, was almost exhausted when the door behind her slid
open. Dawson stood, coming to attention; Corina turned, to see if she
should stand as well.  She hadn't quite made it around when a calm
voice said, "As you were."

She sat back as Dawson resumed his seat.  The newcomer was Ranger
Medart; he propped himself on one corner of the desk, crossing his
arms, and the two studied each other.  Medart was good-looking for a
human, Corina thought, though not really outstanding in any way but
one: he moved with almost Irschchan grace, something unusual in a human
male, especially considering this one's 180-cm height.

She'd seen pictures of him, of course; one Ranger or another was
usually in the news.  So his appearance was familiar: medium build,
youthful-looking thanks to anti-agathics despite graying hair at the
temples and an age--about 75, if she remembered correctly--when an
Irschchan would be preparing for death.  The plain forest-green uniform
was familiar too, with pants bloused over black boots and the wide
pouched gun-and-equipment belt, its only decoration the platinum
star-in-circle badge of his rank.

He was more impressive in person than on the holos, Corina decided.
His cool blue eyes seemed almost able to see into her, and even without
trying, she could sense him; he seemed to radiate an aura of quiet
competence like nothing she'd felt before.  It surprised her
momentarily, then she twitched an ear, amused at herself.  He was a
Ranger, after all, not an ordinary human. Her curiosity aroused, she
tried a quick probe--to be stopped by a mind-shield that was clearly
both unconscious and well above novice level.  An unusual human indeed,
she thought, intrigued.

Medart allowed her scrutiny, studying her at the same time.  Despite
their upright stance and lack of tails, Irschchans invariably reminded
him of the Siamese cats he'd raised when he was a youngster in Texas.
This one was no exception.  Tawny fur, thick and soft, covered
everything except her palms and the soles of her feet, though it was
marred now by slight scorching on her right arm and a bloodstained area
just below her throat.  Her alert, pointed ears only increased her
resemblance to the remembered Siamese, but he knew the brain which lay
between those ears was fully equal to a human one.  While it was hard
to read Irschchan expressions, Medart liked the steady look in this
one's jade-green eyes.

He did think they looked faintly ridiculous in kilt and sporran, but
that had become the Irschchan mode of dress almost as soon as MacLeod,
a man aggressively proud of his Scots heritage, appeared in one at the
official welcoming ceremony.  Too bad; it not only detracted from their
graceful appearance, in his opinion, but it made telling male and
female apart almost impossible.  For humans, at least, he thought with
a silent laugh.  The Irschchans themselves seemed to have no

Well, time for business, he decided.  But he'd take it as easy on her
as he could; she'd had a rough time.  "How about some more information
on this rebellion?" he asked, keeping his tone casual.

"I have already told Major Dawson what I am certain about," Corina said

"And the mind-probe of Entos confirmed all of it.  But can you tell me
why it's happening?"

"Thark is convinced that the White Order can rule the Empire much more
effectively than you unTalented humans have been doing.  They have,
after all, ruled Irschcha for over five millennia, and according to
Thark, brought about peace and order for most of it.  He feels
honor-bound to do the same for the rest of the galaxy."

"Looks to me more like stagnation," Medart commented.  "You've had
space travel for more than--what, two of those millennia?--but when
MacLeod found you, you were still system-bound.  Sorry for the
interruption; go on."

"I could not agree with him, and came here," Corina said.  "I have no
physical proof, however, of anything I have said.  I learned what I
have reported when I broke through Thark's mind-shield this morning."

"Physical proof isn't necessary," Medart told her.  "Your report,
backed up by the probe of Entos, is enough.  Learn anything else?"

"Not really.  The whole Order is not taking part, of course, but those
who are not active in the Crusade will also not actively oppose it."

"Oh?  Why not?"

"They cannot honorably do so," Corina replied, surprised.  "The oath of
the Order forbids such opposition to its leaders, though of course it
cannot compel any to follow orders which would lead them to death, as
the Crusade will."

"You're not actually a member of the Order, then?"

"No.  I was to be initiated soon; however, for now I am bound by no
oaths.  I am still free to follow my own paths."

"Uh-huh," Medart agreed.  "Good thing for the Empire."  Not as free as
she believed, he thought but didn't say.  She had chosen sides, and it
was up to him to make use of that choice.  Then he went on.  "I still
need your help. As secretive as the Order is, we don't know much of
anything about this Talent you say they have, much less how to combat

The intercom chimed before he could go further.  Dawson answered, and
Medart joined him, looking into the screen.

"Lieutenant Edmonds, Duty Officer of the Watch," the caller identified
herself.  "The head of the district Sanctioners is here.  He has
extradition papers for Ms. Losinj, who is accused of assaulting a
Sanctioner officer.  He also demands we release Entos."

"Send him in," Medart said, the casualness he'd assumed for Corina's
benefit vanishing.  "I'll handle this myself."

"Yes, sir."  The viewscreen went blank.

Medart turned to Corina.  "Did you assault a Sanctioner officer?"

"That is a matter of interpretation," she replied.  "I was on my way
here when they stopped me.  They were taking me to Headquarters for
execution; I had to use Talent to knock one of them out so I could

"Self-defense, then, since you were trying to prevent a crime by
escaping."  Medart took Dawson's place behind the desk, and the Marine
took position slightly behind and to the Ranger's right, standing at
parade rest. All three waited silently until the door slid open again,
to admit the Sanctioner chief.  He wasted no time getting to the point.

"You have no right to interfere in purely planetary matters," he said.
"I must require the return of Losinj and Entos."

"You're wrong on two counts," Medart said coldly.  "As a Ranger, it is
not only my right to interfere, as you put it, anywhere and anywhen I
see a threat to the Empire, it is my duty.  Rebellion against the
Empire is such a threat, not a `planetary matter'; Losinj was acting
properly in defending herself to report that treason.  She is guilty of
no crimes, which is not true of the ones who obstructed her.

"I am not particularly concerned about the ones who arrested her," he
continued.  "They were obeying what they considered lawful orders from
their Baron, on his world, so punishing them would be unjust.  Entos,
however, is guilty of attempted murder on Imperial territory.  I have
both eyewitness and mind-probe evidence, so there is no doubt of his
guilt; he will be executed."

"But she betrayed the Order!" the Sanctioner chief objected.  "For
that, if nothing else, she deserves to die.  Entos was acting

"Not under Imperial law," Medart said.  "The sentence stands.  And I
advise you not to get more deeply involved.  Just carry out your
peace-keeping functions."


"No buts," Medart said coldly.  "Losinj lives, Entos dies.  If you
interfere further, I will have to assume you are part of this Crusade,
and take appropriate measures.  Is that understood?"

The chief's ears twitched.  "Yes, Ranger."

"Good.  You may leave."

Corina watched the subdued Sanctioner chief do so, then she turned back
to the Ranger, intrigued.  His sudden change of manner had caught her
by surprise, and it might have been frightening--except that he had
defended her, even as he condemned Entos to death.  Knowing what he was
and seeing him in action were very different things.  There was
something decidedly attractive about this human, more than just his
appearance--a something she was beginning to appreciate.

"I must ask asylum," she said quietly.  "If I leave the Palace . . .
urrr.  You know what will happen.  Most in the Order will feel as he

"But you say you're not a member of the Order," Dawson objected.  "If
you're not oath-bound, how can you betray them?"

"They do not see it that way," Corina said.  "They expect anyone with
Talent to feel bound to the Order even before formal initiation.  It
is--or was--inconceivable that anyone with any useful degree of Talent
would refuse to join the Order.  It is natural that they would see my
opposition as betrayal.  I would probably feel the same way myself if I
had spent my childhood being indoctrinated in Order schools."

"That's all very interesting," Medart interrupted, "but not right now.
Ms. Losinj, there's no asylum involved; I've said I need your help, so
you'll be coming aboard the Emperor Chang with me."

"I have no desire to be killed, and you certainly need to know about
Talent.  I will give you what help I can."

Medart was careful to hide his amusement at that response; she'd made
her choice already.  But he couldn't help feeling a little regret at
tearing her away from her home world, even though it meant saving her
life; home meant a lot to most people, and losing it usually meant a
serious blow.  But at this point neither of them had much choice left.
"Shall we leave, then?  We do have a rebellion to stop."


Corina didn't pay much attention to her surroundings as the three went
to the Palace roof where Medart's lander waited.  Reaction had set in,
now that she was safe, and for the moment she was numb.

It wasn't until they were inside the boxy little vehicle that she paid
full attention again.  Small as it was, this was a space-going vessel
of the Imperial Navy, something she'd thought lost to her forever when
her Talent made its belated appearance.  Her ears went forward
attentively; she didn't want to miss anything.

Medart noticed, and smiled.  "Your first time aboard a spacecraft, Ms.

"Yes, Ranger."

"Take the right-hand seat forward, then.  No co-pilot's necessary on a
surface-to-orbit hop, and you'll get a good view from there."  He
turned to his bodyguard, who was also the lander's pilot.  "Nevan,
would you help Ms. Losinj strap in, please?"

"Aye, sir."  Nevan, now in Marine black, bent over the young Irschchan.
"Here . . . this goes across your lap, and these two over your
shoulders, all to the same buckle.  It's a quick-release type; to get
out, just slap this button."

"Thank you."  Corina accepted the help, though she didn't really need
it.  Her pre-Talent hopes of attending the Naval Academy had led her to
study anything she could find about the Fleets, including such minor
details as how to secure flight restraints.

She had given up those hopes, forced herself to repress them and think
about her future in the Order instead.  To suddenly have them back--
once she'd given the Ranger what help she could, of course--was almost
too much to believe.  And to be making her first trip off-planet aboard
a Navy craft, with a Ranger, was something beyond her wildest dreams.

It was truly no dream, though, she assured herself, and as they lifted
off she was determined not to look foolish.  That was easy at first;
she had seen enough holoshows to be familiar with the green sky's
darkening, becoming black as they left atmosphere.  Soon she could see
stars, now hard bright points of light rather than the soft twinkling
she was used to.

One began showing a sunlit disk, and she realized that had to be Ranger
Medart's ship.  Tiny-seeming at first, it grew rapidly, filling the
lander's window and continuing to grow.

Corina's determination faltered.  She had seen innumerable pictures of
such vessels, knew their immensity--a Sovereign-class battle cruiser
was approximately spherical, a kilometer in diameter, and massed on the
close order of eight hundred million tons.  But pictures and statistics
couldn't convey the emotional impact of actually seeing one at close
range for the first time.  Corina swallowed an exclamation of awe,
trying to remain calm, but she could feel Medart's gaze, and felt
certain he knew how the ship affected her.

The lander surged slightly as it was gripped by a tractor beam from one
of the Chang's equatorial hangars.  Nevan released the controls,
allowing the beam operator to settle the lander to the deck while
hangar doors closed behind them.  As soon as his gauges showed
Terra-normal atmosphere, he opened the airlock and the group disembarked,
with Medart in the lead and Corina trailing behind.

The hangar deck was large, much bigger than necessary for the lander it
now held, yet Corina had a feeling of things closing in on her.
Precognition was no part of her Talent, though, so she attributed the
sensation to her surroundings, familiar from pictures but strange in
reality.  She felt like a young, unbladed child again, everything
around her seeming odd and alien in spite of her studies.

But this was her new reality, here aboard the Chang.  She had no way to
know how she would fit in yet, but she did know she would have to.
This ship was going to be home for however long the Ranger wanted her
help; she would have to adapt.

When they left the hangar, they were met by a stocky officer in Navy
working khaki; from the eagle on his collar, Corina knew he was the
ship's captain.  There were several others, with different rank
insignia, but it was the first man who saluted Medart.

The Ranger returned the salute, then introduced them.  "Captain David
Hobison, this is Ms. Corina Losinj.  She will be accompanying us on
this trip as my special assistant.  She won't have any formal Navy
rank, but I want her quartered in a senior officer's cabin, preferably
near mine.  Have someone see to that, bring the ship to Condition
Yellow, then meet me in Briefing Room One.  I have to call the Emperor,
and I don't want to have to go through everything twice."

He started to leave, then turned to Corina.  "Before I go, what's your
ident code?"

"ISCCJ-1643-2048," she replied.

"Got it."  Medart strode past the group and entered an intra-ship
shuttle, one of several, partway down the passage.

Hobison gave Corina a thoughtful look, then turned to one of the
officers standing nearby.  "Ensign Yamata?"

A young female with a gold bar for collar insigne answered.  "Yes,

"You're assigned to Ms. Losinj until further notice.  Get her a cabin
and anything else she needs.  You're relieved of regular watch

"Yes, sir!" Yamata said with a wide smile.  "If you'll come with me,
Ms. Losinj?"

Corina inclined her head.  "I appear to be in your hands, Ensign."

"You might as well call me Sunbeam," Yamata said as they left the
group.  "Everyone else does, even Ranger Medart, except on watch.  And
you heard the Captain, I'm not standing watches any more, thanks to
you.  I really do mean thanks--I was supposed to go on rotating shifts
tomorrow, instead of staying on first watch, and now I don't have to."
She smiled again, even more widely.

Corina's ears twitched in surprise at the flood of words, but Sunbeam
didn't seem to notice.  "All right, Sunbeam.  What do we do first?"

That was something else she would have to get used to, Corina told
herself.  Humans were, by Irschchan standards, quite informal,
sometimes to the point of appearing rude.  But they did not intend
offense, and she really ought to adapt to their ways, so she added,
"You may call me Corina."

"Great!  We find you a cabin, that's first, then we can eat, if you're
as hungry as I am.  C'mon, let's get a shuttle."

That reminded Corina that she hadn't eaten since the previous night.
"I am hungry," she agreed, as they entered one of the elevator-like
cubicles that provided intra-ship transport.  "But what if Ranger
Medart wants me for something?"

"That's right, he called you his special assistant.  Don't worry about
it, Chang handles the intra-ship communications."  The young Ensign
spoke into thin air.  "Emperor Chang?"

A pleasant baritone voice replied.  "Yes, Ensign Yamata?"

"We have a VIP guest, Ms. Corina Losinj of Irschcha.  Ranger Medart
wants her assigned a cabin near his.  What's available?"

"There is one next to his," the ship-comp replied.  "3N-2-1-8 is free."

"Great!  Take us there, will you?"

"Affirmative.  Is there anything else?"

"No, thanks."

"Chang out."

The shuttle began to move, and Sunbeam turned to Corina.  "You'll have
to memorize those coordinates, I'm afraid.  You're not a member of the
ship's crew, so until Ranger Medart or Captain Hobison say otherwise,
that and comm patches are the only commands of yours the Chang will
obey, once you get its attention by using its full name.  Security, you

"I understand," Corina said.  "Deck Three North, Ring Two, Segment One,
Cabin B."

"Very good!" Sunbeam exclaimed.  "If this was the Academy, I'd make you
explain the system."

"If I am fortunate, I will go to the Academy when this is over.  May I

Sunbeam assumed a mock-fierce expression.  "All right, plebe.  Recite!"

A stern-looking Sunbeam Yamata seemed so incongruous, even on short
acquaintance, that Corina purred briefly in amusement.  "We came in on
Deck Zero, known as the Equator.  Other decks are numbered away from
that, south being toward the drive pod, north toward the bow.  The
Bridge is at the center of Deck Zero, fully protected.  The rings are
numbered outward, toward the hull.  There are twelve segments, numbered
clockwise from an arbitrary beginning, and compartments in each segment
are given alphabetic designations."

When she finished, Sunbeam was grinning again.  "Not quite by the book,
but you're close, and you've got all the facts right.  Are you a Navy
fan, or something?"

The shuttle door opened, and the two stepped out into a cool-looking
green corridor before Corina replied.  "I would not use that term, but
you could say so."

"D . . . C . . . here we are."  Sunbeam motioned Corina into the cabin.
"So was I.  It makes a lot of the first year easier.  But don't get
used to this--cadet quarters aren't anywhere near this nice, and
neither are junior officers' quarters.  Which you probably already

"Yes."  Corina looked around.  It was more like a small apartment than
a cabin, with the part they were in both lounge and office.  A panel
labeled "Ship's Services" covered one wall above a table which had an
L-shaped extension housing a computer terminal and viewscreen.  Storage
and display cabinets lined two other walls.  The fourth was a
translucent screen with a curtained-off opening.

She brushed past the curtain into the sleeping area.  A standard bed
covered in glimmercloth was the only furniture here; the clothing
storage and fabricator were both built into the wall across from the
bed.  A door in the wall opposite the divider proved to lead to a small
but well-designed 'fresher room--though Corina remembered that aboard
Navy ships, for some obscure reason, they were called "heads".

She returned to the lounge area, testing one of the two armchairs it
held--yes, as soft as it looked--glad that if she was to spend some
appreciable amount of time on this ship, it would be in such pleasant
surroundings. A yellow light flashing on a panel beside the door caught
her attention, and she pointed to it.  "What is--oh, I remember."

"Ship's status, right," Sunbeam said.  "We're in Condition Yellow;
what's General Quarters?"

"Red, with a wavering buzz.  I do not have a battle station, so I would
remain here unless told otherwise by a senior officer."

"Right again!"  Sunbeam looked around.  "I think that's all here.  So
unless you need something else . . ."  Her voice trailed off, and she
pointed to Corina's neck.  "Is that blood?"

"Oh."  Corina reached up and touched the spot.  "I forgot, and I have
had no chance to wash it off before now.  Excuse me for a moment,
please." She left, returning with her throat fur damp but clean, to
face a thorough scrutiny by the young Ensign.

Sunbeam nodded at last.  "And that's a blaster burn--"

Corina felt a curiosity as strong as her own, and hastened to say, "I
do not think I should discuss it until Ranger Medart tells me I may."

Sunbeam looked dissatisfied, and Corina didn't really blame her.  "You
must be something pretty special," the Ensign said.  "He comes back
from convalescent leave early, brings you along--wounded--as his
special assistant, puts the ship on Condition Yellow . . . and I bet
you can't talk about any of that, either.  Uh, do they hurt?  I can
take you to sickbay if they do."

"You cover many things at once," Corina said with amusement.  "No, I
cannot talk about it, but no, they do not hurt.  The burn just singed
my fur a little.  It looks bad, but it is not a problem; I need no
medical attention."

Sunbeam frowned briefly.  "Whatever's going on must be big!  But okay,
I know about security.  If you're sure you're all right, and there's
nothing else, what say we go eat?  You could have a meal right here, of
course," she indicated the service panel, "but it's more fun to eat
with others.  I usually go to Mess Three; the food's the same
everywhere, but Three's where junior officers mostly eat, Ensigns and
Lieutenants, and it's usually lively.  Want to?"

"You are the guide," Corina said, wondering how, if she always talked
this much, Sunbeam managed to eat.  Apparently she didn't manage much;
she was quite slender.

      *      *      *      *      *

Medart did some serious thinking about the young Irschchan while he
waited in the briefing room for Hobison.  Like most Rangers, he'd
learned to follow his occasional hunches, and one had hit him on the
way up to the Chang. Corina Losinj was important, both to the Empire
and--on a very personal basis--to a certain James Medart.  His hunches
were seldom specific, so he didn't have any idea how or why she was
important, but he was certain she was. That was part of the reason he'd
called her his special assistant, and had her assigned quarters near
his own.

He looked up as Hobison entered.  "Everything set, Dave?"

"Yes, sir," Hobison replied.  "And I had Communications call the
Palace, your personal code.  We should be getting a reply any time, and
it'll be patched through to here."

"Thanks."  Medart was appreciative, though he hadn't expected any less
from the man who'd captained his ship for the past twenty years.  "This
is something I'm not looking forward to telling His Majesty."

The briefing room screen flickered blue, then cleared to show a lean,
gray-haired man wearing a Ranger's uniform with the Imperial Seal in
place of the badge.  Both men on the Chang stood and saluted.

Emperor Charles Davis returned the salute.  "What is it, Jim?  You
wouldn't be back on duty if it weren't critical."

"Rebellion, sir."  Medart reported all he had learned, both from the
probe of Entos and from Corina, watching the Emperor's expression
become grim. And he reported his hunch.

Davis nodded.  "Follow it up.  Learn all you can about their Talent,
too.  The White Order's never given us any trouble before, so they were
entitled to their privacy, but that's over now.  We can't afford to
keep depending on stories and rumors."

"She's agreed to give any help she can, sir, as I said, and that
includes briefing me on Talent."

"Good.  I'll alert the nobility, have them take extra precautions since
they're bound to be targets.  You're on-scene; do you think I should
have a fleet cordon off Irschcha itself?"

"No, sir," Medart replied.  "Thark's smart, we know that.  If he and
his people haven't left the planet already, they'll damnsure be gone by
the time a cordon fleet could get here."

"All right.  But I will have Earl Suitland take over planetary
administration, and I'll send some extra troops to stand by in case she
needs them."  Davis scowled.  "This isn't going to look good,
especially to the Traiti.  I promised them they'd keep their own
government so they could stop fighting and join the Empire, and the
White Order ruling Irschcha was one of the convincers.  Only their
Lords know how they'll react to this--they've only been part of the
Empire for six weeks."

"It's touchy, all right," Medart agreed.  "Having to take over one of
the only two non-human governments--they may see it as evidence we
don't really consider non-humans as equals."

"We'll have to convince them otherwise."  Davis paused briefly.  "Jim,
do you think your hunch that Ms. Losinj is important could mean she's
Ranger material?"

"No way to know yet, sir.  She's got the loyalty, she's proven that,
and she certainly acts intelligent enough, but I'll have to find out
about the rest.  Check her records, talk to her, see how she thinks--
maybe give her the pre-Academy tests.  I haven't noticed anything
negative so far, but I haven't seen much of her, either."

"I know.  Just keep me informed; we need a non-human Ranger.  But even
if she doesn't qualify, I think she deserves a title for having the
courage and loyalty to warn us."

"Agreed, sir.  A Life Nobility?"

Davis smiled slightly.  "She deserves it, but I'm going to reserve that
pleasure for myself--here at the Palace, in a full Grand Audience.
Give her a knighthood for now."

"Yes, sir.  I'll hold a Tribunal tomorrow morning."

"That's it, then.  I've got to get moving on this mess.  Out."  The
Emperor's image flickered blue, then disappeared.

Hobison gave the Ranger a long, silent look before he spoke.
"Rebellion, hmm?  From the timing, I'd say this Thark's just been
waiting for the war to end.  That doesn't strike me as typical behavior
for a rebel."

"Same here," Medart said.  "He's not typical at all, from what Losinj
told me.  Most rebels are greedy, out for nothing but power--according
to her, Thark's convinced the Order can rule better than we poor
unTalented can, so it's his duty to take over.  Naturally, I don't

Hobison snorted.  "Good intentions don't make up for treason.  What's

"That depends on what we learn from Losinj," Medart replied.  "At the
moment, I just don't know enough to make realistic plans.  Too much
depends on how powerful this Talent of the Order's is."

Hobison nodded.  "That makes sense.  But would you really ask her to
join the Rangers?  She's so tiny, so . . ."

"Pettable?"  Medart came close to smiling.  "She looks it, yes, but you
heard what she had to do to reach us.  And you know size doesn't have
anything to do with it.  Sure I'll ask her, if I find she's qualified,
even if I hate to wish this responsibility on anyone.  His Majesty's
right, we need a non-human Ranger badly.  Especially now that we're
integrating the Traiti."

"Uh-huh.  Good politics, if nothing else."

Medart nodded.  "Since that damn Firster backshot Steve in the Palace
and Hovan took him, there's been sentiment growing for non-humans.
It's a good thing, and it makes this an ideal time for that
breakthrough.  It'd probably tickle Steve to know that she'd take his
place.  I'm just sorry this means no shore leave for Chang's crew."

"So am I," Hobison agreed.  "I could use a bit of vacation about now.
It can't be helped, though."

"No."  Medart sighed, changed the subject.  "She might as well brief
all of us at once; can you have the Command Crew here in, say, an

"Yes, sir.  Do you want me to have her paged?"

"Don't bother."  Medart grinned.  "If I know our Sunbeam, she's found
Losinj a cabin and taken her to Mess Three.  I could use something to
eat myself, so I'll go get her."

      *      *      *      *      *

Medart spotted Yamata and his new assistant almost as soon as he
entered Mess Three.  Spotted where they must be sitting, rather; that
noisy group on the far side of the room.  He punched in his order--
coffee and an egg salad sandwich--and when it slid from the dispenser,
took it over to stand on the outskirts of the group.

"--like it's something you'd do every day before lunch!" a young Marine
Lieutenant was saying.  "Dig out a plot, escape from three cops, fight
an assassin, then say it was nothing.  That's incredible!"

So they'd succeeded in worming part of the story out of her, Medart
thought.  Just the basics, most likely, so they'd let her eat, and
there was no harm in that; everyone would find out soon enough.

"You can't shrug it off that lightly, 'Rina," someone else said.
"That'd get one of us a medal.  Should get you a knighthood, maybe a
Life Nobility."

Then Sunbeam spoke up, almost laughing.  "Take it easy!  Can't you see
you're embarrassing her terribly?"

"Well, she should," the other retorted.  "If I had enough rank, I'd
call a Tribunal right now, and knight her."

Not a bad idea at all, Medart thought.  It probably would be best,
considering Greggson's attitude, for her to have that formal status
when she met with the Command Crew.  The man's competence as Security
Chief couldn't be questioned, but Medart wondered at times how he'd
ever passed the psych tests to become an Imperial officer, with his
near-xenophobia.  Hmm, this was getting interesting--the anonymous
young officer was going through with it, speaking the formula of
knighthood as solemnly as if this were indeed a real Tribunal.  All
Medart could see of the Irschchan was her eartips, erect and quivering
as her admirer finished on a note of triumph: "--and do name you,
Corina Losinj of Irschcha, a Knight of the Empire!"

"Confirmed," Medart said, pitching his voice so the entire group would

"Wha--"  The officer turned, flushing, as the group noticed the Ranger
for the first time.

Medart smiled.  "I said `confirmed', Ensign; you did that well enough I
don't see any need to repeat the ceremony.  Now may I join my

"Uh . . . yes, sir.  Of course."

Corina stared from Ranger to Ensign and back, confused.  This was far
too informal, even by human standards, to mean what it seemed to--and
yet the Ranger was perfectly serious, no trace of humor in voice or
aura.  "I do not understand," she said at last.  "I have done only my
duty; I deserve no special recognition for that."

"His Majesty doesn't agree, Sir Corina," Medart said, stressing the
title slightly, as he took a seat.  "If you'd care to argue it with

Corina looked disbelievingly at the Ranger, who was smiling at her with
one eyebrow raised.  Was this what humans called "teasing"?  She
supposed it had to be; he couldn't seriously expect her to argue with
the Emperor!  "No, Ranger.  If His Majesty wishes to so honor me, I
must accept."

Typical exaggerated Irschchan respect for authority, Medart thought,
but if she stayed around humans long, she'd get over that!  "You'd best
finish your lunch, Sir Corina.  And get used to the title; I've called
a Command Crew meeting for 1400, so you can brief them."

"Yes, Ranger."  Corina turned her attention back to her meal, the milk
and medium-rare steak Sunbeam had recommended.

      *      *      *      *      *

The meeting began on schedule, in Briefing Room One, with Hobison
introducing his senior officers.  Corina took the opportunity to make a
quick evaluation of each.  There was no dishonor; she was not probing
deeply enough to intrude.

Hobison himself was shielded, well enough she could read nothing of him
. . . as he should be in his position, though it was surprising.

"My Executive Officer, Commander Sonia Pappas."  She was a short
brunette, four or five kilos overweight but not fat.  No mind screen;
Corina felt an aura of competence from her.

"Marine Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Greggson, Chief of Security."  Tall and
muscular, he wore Marine black with silver oak leaf rank insigne.
Despite his strong mind shield, Corina sensed hostility.

"Commander Marie Sherman, Chief Medical Officer."  A tall blonde who
seemed uncomfortable outside her own medical center.  No screen, but
she wasn't radiating any particular emotion, either.

"And finally Commander Carl Jensen, Chief Engineer."  Small and
studious looking, he didn't really stand out.  Like Sherman, he was
unshielded and wanted nothing more than to return to his own domain.

Medart took over the meeting at that point, describing what little he
knew of the White Order.  "We're here to find out exactly how much of a
threat the Order actually is to the Empire," he concluded.  "Sir Corina
has agreed to help us, so she's next."

Corina stood.  "I do not know precisely what information you wish.
Perhaps it would be best if you asked questions."

"All right.  Just what can the Order do?  Specifically, what is this
Talent we hear stories about?  I need facts, not rumors."

"You mean the individual members?"

"For a start, yes."

"Urrr . . . telepathy, of course, and--"

"Reliable telepathy?" Sherman broke in skeptically.  "That's never been

"Then I must do so, at least to your satisfaction."  Corina turned to
the Ranger.  "If I may do so without dishonor?"

"There's no dishonor involved; that's what you're here for.  Go ahead."

Corina turned back, probed gently into the Medical Officer's unscreened
mind.  "You are familiar with the Rhine reports some four centuries
before the Empire?"

"Yes, but they're no more proof of telepathy than your guessing I'd
read them."

"They should have convinced you.  Since they do not, I must probe more
deeply.  I do not wish to distress you, but belief is essential.  I
have been aboard only a short time, not long enough to learn anything
about you in the so-called `normal' way.  Would you agree?"

Sherman nodded.

"Very well.  Your middle name is Jean.  Your hobby is pre-Empire
science fiction."  Corina paused, contemplating.  "That appears
interesting; I shall have to look into it.  To continue, your favorite
stories are the Lensman series, and your only regret is that--"

"That's enough!" Sherman interrupted in a near shout.  "I'm convinced.
You don't have to go on."

Corina, satisfied that she had made her point, continued to the entire
group.  "Telepathy is the most common aspect of Talent, and by far the
easiest to develop; all of the Order has it, in varying degrees.  A
mind screen or shield is almost as common; it seems to go with the
telepathy, in all but rare cases."  She noticed a slightly raised hand.
"Yes, Colonel Greggson?"

"That mind screen--does it occur without telepathy?  It could be very
useful, in my field."

"Not in Irschchans, but it apparently does in humans.  I noticed
earlier that you, Ranger Medart, and Captain Hobison all have excellent
ones, among the best I have felt."

Greggson smiled grimly.  "Thanks.  That's good to know."  He went on
more softly, muttering to himself, but Corina's hearing made his words
clearly audible.  "All the most sensitive positions.  Damn lucky . . .
if the kitty's not lying."

Corina's ears flattened slightly at that uncalled-for slur, but she
forced herself to say nothing about it, responding instead to the Chief
Engineer's slight gesture.  "You wish to ask something, Commander

"Please.  Can a mind screen like that be generated electronically?"

"To the best of my knowledge, Commander, such a thing has never been
attempted.  There are those who would consider the electronic imitation
of Talent an obscenity, and they have much influence."

"What else?" Medart asked.

"Direction sense would be included for humans, I believe," Corina said.
"The Order does not consider it a true aspect of Talent, since it is
something all Irschchans have, but I understand that is not true for
you.  Otherwise, aside from what I have already mentioned, there is
anything one can imagine being done by mind power rather than physical
means, though few people have more than one such aspect, and no one has
been reported with more than three. The rarest is precognition; I have
not heard of anyone having that in over fifty years.  I myself am
capable of weak telekinesis, finding, and darlas." She saw puzzled
looks, and explained.  "Finding is the ability to locate concealed--or
simply misplaced--objects, and darlas is a form of telepathic attack."

"What's telekinesis?" Greggson asked.

"Moving objects by mind power alone."  When the Security Chief looked
doubtful, Corina decided she had best demonstrate that as well.  But
the conference table was bare, and she did not want to use anything of
her own.

"Ranger Medart, do you have anything I could use to show the Colonel
what I mean?  It had best be light; as I said, that aspect of my Talent
is not particularly powerful."

"I think so," Medart replied.  He reached into a pouch on his belt,
pulled out a small notepad.  "Is this okay?"

"It is fine.  Would you put it on the table, please?"

He did as she asked.  She stared hard at it for perhaps five seconds,
concentrating, then the pad rose from the table.  Apparently on its
own, it circled the room, then settled gently back to its starting
place in front of the Ranger.

For long seconds, nobody spoke.  Then Medart said softly, "If the Order
can do all that, I'd say we have a bit worse of a problem than I

"Not all can do everything," Corina reminded him, "any more than I can.
Still, their abilities do combine to make a formidable power.  The
problem is a serious one."

"This Talent of yours is all very well," Greggson put in, "but I doubt
if it would be any good against armed, trained Security Division
Marines.  I'd bet on my men any day."

"You would lose," Corina told him, then she looked at Medart.  "It
seems I must demonstrate this as well, since Colonel Greggson appears
unable to accept my word.  Although there are many who equal or surpass
me, my Talent is above average; I can give you some idea of the
opposition you will have to face."

Medart nodded.  "Good suggestion.  Greggson, get half a decade of your
best troops together in the main gym as soon as you can."

"Yes, sir."  Greggson left, scowling at Corina as he passed her.  She
wondered what she could have done to arouse the man's hostility; after
all, she had barely met him.

"Give him a few minutes to get them together," Medart said, "then we
can meet them in the gym.  Do you really think you can defeat five top
SecuDiv Marines?"

"I do not know," Corina replied quietly.  "It has been some time since
I worked with unTalented people, and last time I tried, I could defeat
only two, neither of whom had a shield.  On the other hand, I have been
training with Thark and Valla.  But defeating them is not as important
as convincing Colonel Greggson of the danger he and his Marines face."

"Truthfully, I don't think you can do it," Hobison said.  "All his
people are top caliber, or they wouldn't be on this ship--and one of
them, Ranger Medart's bodyguard, is a Sandeman warrior."

"Any selected for this vessel's Marine contingent would be formidable,
I know," Corina said, "particularly one of that race's warriors.  But I
still believe the demonstration necessary; if one who is yet a student
can make a respectable showing against such, then you will take more
seriously those who are long-experienced in the use of their greater

"Can't argue that," Hobison said.  "But I don't envy you the
demonstration, Sir Corina."

All except the Ranger agreed aloud.  He agreed privately as well, but
wanted to give her the best chance possible, which meant not
discouraging her before she even got started.  And she was right; the
demonstration, whatever its outcome, would be valuable.  "Greggson's
had time to call his people together," he said at last.  "Let's get to
the gym."

Medart spent the shuttle trip unobtrusively studying the young
Irschchan.  She'd certainly been handed a rough deal, he thought
sympathetically.  He might not share her telepathic Talent, but he
could make an educated guess about how she felt.  Betrayed by her
teacher, attacked and almost killed, then drafted and hauled into a
whole new kind of life . . . she couldn't be exactly comfortable about
the whole thing, but she was reacting better than he could've
expected--well enough that he'd rate her adaptability level the equal
of a Ranger's, which was a promising sign.  She'd make out all right,
whether she met Ranger standards all the way or not.

Corina's self-evaluation was less optimistic.  She was managing to keep
up a good front somehow, she thought, since she didn't care to let
strangers know just how overwhelmed she felt by the day's happenings.
At the moment she was going strictly on stubbornness, and was just
hoping that would last long enough for her to adapt to this totally
unfamiliar existence.


By the time they got to the gym, it had been set up for the
demonstration; it held a translucent-walled structure that Corina
recognized from descriptions as a combat practice module, its walls
opaque from the inside. To her dismay, there was an audience; off-duty
crewwens lined the gym walls. An audience, she thought, was the last
thing she needed now--but there was no help for it; she would simply
have to do her best in spite of them.

Then she saw Greggson and five others in Marine black standing slightly
apart from the spectators.  She recognized Dawson, and three of the
others were as big--but the fifth, little taller than Corina herself
and seemingly as slight of build, she recognized as by far the most
dangerous.  The pale-eyed, dark-skinned blonds from Subsector Sandeman
were the product of major genetic engineering, particularly their
warriors.  They had a number of advantages over standard humans, but
the only ones she needed to worry about right now were their greater
strength and speed.  Maybe Greggson was right after all.  Talent was
important, but it certainly was not the only factor; she knew better
than to underestimate Imperial Marines, and when one of them was a
Sandeman warrior--

She broke off that line of thought abruptly.  If she kept it up, the
Marines would have no need to defeat her; she would do it to herself.
Calm and control, as Valla and Thark had told her repeatedly, were the
keys to victory.  She and Medart joined the waiting group.

"My men have been briefed, Ranger," Greggson said.  "And they have
stunners, not blasters, so . . . Sir Corina . . . won't be hurt."  He
turned to her.  "Unless, of course, you'd rather call it off."

Corina's self-doubt was turning into determination under his scorn.
"No, thank you," she said quietly.  "I will continue."

Medart smiled briefly at her, then turned to Greggson.  "Get off her
back, Colonel," he said.  "You can join the spectators; I'll set up the
situation for them."

Greggson obeyed silently, and Medart turned to the team leader.  "This
may be a demonstration, Major Dawson, but I want you to treat it
exactly as you would a real security alert.  You've just gotten word of
an intruder, probably armed, and you're checking the ship."  He turned
to Corina, touching a control beside the module's entrance.  When the
walls turned opaque, he said, "You're the intruder, of course.  Go on
in the module and pick yourself a spot.  I'll give you time for that,
then send them in and turn the walls back to one-way."

"Yes, Ranger."  Corina did as she was told, picking a spot near the far
end, a location that had several connecting corridors.  If what she'd
read about search procedures held true, the team would split into two
pairs, with the fifth person keeping several meters behind to back up
whoever needed it. Her best bet, if they separated widely enough, was
to take out one pair and the backup, then the remaining pair.  If not,
it would probably be best to try for the standard humans first--
assuming, as seemed most logical, the Sandeman was backup--which would
leave all her attention free for him.

She closed her eyes, taking her soul-blade and its sheath from her
belt, and scanned for other presences as she would if she were entering
hostile territory.  Despite the distractions of the crowd, she quickly
sensed her five opponents--and got an unpleasant shock.  Three were
totally unshielded, and Dawson's screen was so weak it would offer him
no protection--but the fifth had a shield as tight as any she'd ever
felt.  She shook her head in brief amazement.  Four shielded humans in
the perhaps three hundred she had mind-touched since coming aboard, and
Thark insisted he had met no Talented humans? But then the Emperor-class
cruisers did have elite crews, and three of the four were Command
level--that must be significant, somehow.

But this was no time to worry about theory.  She had been almost right
about her opponents' formation; two were coming down secondary
passages, the fifth--the shielded one, and she learned from Dawson that
he was the Sandeman--was coming down the main corridor.  There was no
way she could defeat them conventionally, but she had known that from
the beginning--and this was to be a demonstration of the Order's
potential; her Talent, not her blade-work, was necessary.  So she
should try for the standard humans first, with darlas.

In training she'd always been able to see, as well as sense, her
opponents; although she had been told her Talent, like Thark's, was
strong enough to make visual contact unnecessary, she wasn't sure she
could concentrate well enough without it.  Considering the
circumstances, however, it was worth trying; she chose Dawson, focusing
her Talent on him with what felt like the right degree of intensity to
knock him out for roughly an hour.

To her surprise and satisfaction, her attack was just as effective and
noticeably less difficult than in her practice sessions; she sensed the
flash of Dawson's pain, then his loss of consciousness.  It was easy to
repeat the process with the unshielded three, and it was good to know
that her training had been so effective--but she knew her most
dangerous opponent remained. And even Thark's darlas couldn't penetrate
a shield that strong, which left TK, weak as hers was, her only real

She waited tensely, a meter back from the main passageway, as he
approached.  He was quiet, his steps barely audible, but she didn't
need that to place his relative position.  He stopped just short of the
cross corridor, then entered swiftly, in a crouch, his stunner ready to
fire--but he was looking to his left, away from her, and that gave her
the time she needed to push the stunner's powerpack release and, as it
fell, spring at him with her sheathed blade coming to rest at the angle
of his jaw, close under his ear.

To her surprise he grinned at her, raising his hands.  "I'd call that
conclusive advantage, Sir Corina," he said.  "With abilities and
reflexes like that, you should've been born Sandeman--I'm Lieutenant
Nevan DarLeras. Welcome aboard."

Corina replaced the soul-blade at her belt and stepped back, returning
his courtesy with a bow.  She'd read about Sandeman ethnocentrism, and
knew he meant his words as a compliment, so she said, "You do me honor,
warrior.  I am pleased to meet you; I hope my victory has not
dishonored you or your fellows in the eyes of your shipmates."

The Sandeman chuckled.  "Hardly, with powers that were only legend
until you proved them.  The others are all right?"

"They are unconscious and they will have painful headaches when they
wake, but other than that, they are fine."

"Only because it was an exercise, I'd say."  Nevan picked up the
powerpack, replaced it in the stunner, and holstered his weapon.  "May
I ask a tactical question?"

"Of course."

"In that case, why did you knock them out and simply remove the
power-pack from my stunner?  I would have expected you to use your
strongest ability against me."

Both looked toward the entrance as they heard footsteps, and saw Ranger
Medart approaching.  When he joined them, he said, "I'd like the answer
to that one myself."

"I did," Corina replied.  "Although it would be more precise to say
that I used the strongest of my powers he was vulnerable to.  His
shield is strong enough to protect him from an attack directly against
his mind; were it weaker and this not an exercise, I could break
through, injuring or killing him. However, even the best shield does
not protect from physical effects, so I was able to use TK against him.
Had this been actual combat, I would have attacked him instead of his
weapon, but a ruptured blood vessel in the brain is too permanent for a
simple demonstration."

"It is that," Medart agreed, pleased and a little surprised at what
sounded like she might be attempting mild humor.  "If this were real,
then, you're saying all five would be dead."

"Yes.  Although had the warrior Nevan entered the corridor facing right
instead of left, the result would have been different."

"But he wasn't."  Medart nodded to the Sandeman.  "You can go back to
whatever you were doing, Lieutenant; I know you're not on watch right

"Thank you, sir."  Nevan bowed to Corina, then left.

Medart gave Corina his full attention.  If he hadn't just watched her
do it, he would have found it almost impossible to believe one small,
delicate-looking student could defeat five Marines at all, much less do
it so quickly and with so little apparent effort.  Her demonstration
didn't make the actual threat any worse, of course; it just made the
magnitude of that threat a lot more apparent.  The White Order was a
small group compared to the rest of the Empire, but with that type of
power, it wouldn't take many of them to cause a major disruption.
Especially if they selected their targets carefully, which Medart had
no doubt would be the case.

He'd better find out her potential as soon as he could, he decided.  If
she wasn't Ranger material, best to know it right away and go from
there; if she was, she should be wearing the badge.  It was a demanding
job, but he enjoyed the challenges, and so would she if she had what it
took--which he found himself hoping she did.  "That was a very
impressive demonstration, Sir Corina," he said then.  "I think you and
I need to have a serious talk.  Let's go to my quarters, where we won't
be disturbed."

      *      *      *      *      *

Corina settled into the armchair Medart indicated, her legs curled
under her, and accepted the glass of milk he offered.  He had sounded
quite somber when he had mentioned the demonstration, and had been
silent on the way here, but there was something in his attitude that
gave her the impression of hope, as well.

His first question startled her.  "Have you given any thought to what
you're going to do with your life, now that you've gone against the
White Order?"

All she could do for a moment was look at him.  Finally she said, "I
have hardly had time to think about that, Ranger.  I suppose I will
return to my original ambition, which was to attend the Imperial
Military Academy; being a naval officer appears to be the most
practical way for me to explore the Empire while being of service to

That was promising, Medart thought--very promising.  "I don't mean to
rush you," he told her.  "I have a couple of ideas on that line myself,
so I'm naturally curious, but I don't need to know right this second.
You're welcome to stay aboard the Chang until you make up your mind,
either as my assistant or simply as a guest."

Corina was puzzled--what ideas could he possibly have about her
future?--but all she said was, "I thank you for your kindness; I do
need time to adjust."

"Probably less than you think, from what I've seen."  Medart seated
himself, taking a sip of coffee.  "Tell me about yourself."

Corina made a gesture of dismissal.  "There is little to tell, I fear.
Until my Talent was accidentally discovered four years ago, I led a
normal, quiet life.  Afterward, I received training in how to use it,
as well as going to tertiary school.  Though my Talent was late in
developing, it was strong enough for Thark to take an interest in me
and supervise my training until he took it over completely.  Otherwise
there is nothing notable."

"That isn't exactly what I meant," Medart said.  "I was thinking more
about things like how you get along with your family, how you feel
about other people, that sort of thing."

"Again, there is nothing truly unusual.  I moved to MacLeod's Landing
when my Talent was discovered, to make my studies under Thark possible.
The Order, as is customary, was supporting me until my initiation, as
well as providing tuition for my advanced schooling.  I remain grateful
for that, despite what I now know of them.  My parents and I get along
well enough, though we are not close.  We simply have very little in
common.  The same is true for my other relatives, including my

"What about other people?"

She laid her ears back in what Medart recognized as a frown.  "That is
difficult to explain.  It is not that I have trouble associating with
others, because I do not.  More and more, however, I find myself
reacting as an observer rather than as a participant, especially in
purely social gatherings. That disturbs me."

Better and better, Medart thought; that was a pretty good description
of the detachment a Ranger needed to maintain impartiality.  "Don't let
it," he advised.  "I feel the same way most of the time myself; it's
nothing to worry about.  You said you'd planned to go to the Academy;
do they do pre-testing here?"

"Yes."  Corina allowed herself a brief purr.  "I did well enough to
receive conditional acceptance by the main Academy on Terra."

Medart raised an eyebrow.  "Not bad, though I wouldn't wish Test Week
on my worst enemy.  Emperor Chang, query the local comps for those
records, please, and send me a hard copy."

"Yes, Ranger," the ship replied.  "It may take some time, however."

"By morning will be fine.  Medart out."

Corina stared at him, then decided she had to ask.  "Why are you so
interested in me?"

"Isn't it obvious?  You're my assistant, at least for now, and I need
to know a lot more about you than your name."

Corina wished she could probe him, but his shield made that impossible.
His interest, she was certain, was greater than normal about a simple
assistant--especially when he had mentioned having a couple of ideas
about her life-plans.  But she had been raised to trust Rangers; if
that was all he thought it wise to say, it would be best not to

Medart grinned at her.  "You want more, but you won't ask.  That's
good, since I don't have the answers just yet.  Why not let me call
Sunbeam up here, get her to take you to supper, then both of you relax
for the evening?  We can talk more once I've gone through your records,
and I expect to have a war conference after that, when you'll have to
evaluate whatever you know about Thark for us."

      *      *      *      *      *

Medart had been too keyed up by the young Irschchan's demonstration to
even try sleeping normally.  Two hours on the sleep machine gave him
the equivalent of a good eight hours' rest, though, and by 0100 he was
keying the service panel in his cabin for a cup of coffee, strong and
black, plenty of sugar.

He gulped half the cup, scalding his tongue in the process, then sipped
at the rest, thinking about her and making plans for the day.  First
thing to do was check her records, then report his findings to the
Emperor.  From what he knew of her already, he fully expected those
reports to be favorable.

He finished the first cup of coffee, then checked his delivery slot,
finding Chang had accomplished its mission; the slot held a hard copy
of Corina's records, complete with summary.  He got a second cup of
coffee, taking it and the printout over to his work area.

Several hours passed as he studied those records with growing
satisfaction.  The more he read, the more promising Corina Losinj
looked.  The only flaw he could find was in her psych profile; it
showed a lack of self-confidence.  Medart wondered at that, because she
certainly didn't lack ability.  Still, self-evaluations were
notoriously inaccurate--and for his current purpose, too little
confidence was better than too much.

Finally he stood and stretched, easing muscles cramped from sitting in
one position too long.  His next step, he decided with some amusement,
would have to be getting rid of that coffee!

That accomplished, he returned to his work area and switched his
display screen to communications mode.  It was 0800 by ship and Palace
time; the Emperor would be in his office by now, so Medart accessed the
Imperial priority band, then the Emperor's private comset.

The response was prompt; Davis' face appeared within five seconds.
"Morning, Jim.  What have you found out?"

"She looks promising, sir.  Very promising.  I talked to her a bit last
night, and I've just finished going over her records.  They're damn
good.  IQ in the top tenth percent, personality profile stable Class I.
School grades above average but not spectacular--her teachers attribute
it to boredom from lack of challenge, even in the advanced classes--and
she's a generalist. Independent work is widespread and good; she did
one paper on Imperial administration that should be turned into a
handbook.  And she's already taken the pre-Academy tests.  Top level,
of course; she qualified for the Academy at the Complex.  Which is
where she plans to go, now that she's not committed to the White Order
any longer."

"Typical pattern for a Ranger, all right," the Emperor said with a
smile.  Then he turned serious.  "How many potential Rangers are we
missing? The gods know we need every one we can find!  Anything else?"

"She's lacking self-confidence, but that's the only negative thing I
saw.  As for missing others, there can't be too many we would miss,
even on Irschcha.  Anyone with the right personality pattern is certain
to try for the Academy, and that degree of ability will get them to
Terra--unless they're stopped by something, like the White Order
pre-empting anyone with Talent."

"Mm."  The Emperor looked dissatisfied.  "Not much we can do about
that, though.  You're satisfied that Sir Corina is fully qualified?"

"No question in my mind.  Yes, sir, she is--maybe more so than the rest
of us, with her extra Talent abilities.  She demonstrated them very
convincingly yesterday afternoon."  Medart described the previous day's
exercise in full detail, then shook his head.  "It was almost
unbelievable. Five Marines, with one of them a Sandeman warrior."

"And you saw it," Davis said.  "If Chang made a tape, I'd like a copy."

"We didn't expect much, so I didn't order one, but somebody else might
have.  Emperor Chang?"

"Colonel Greggson has all such exercises taped for analysis, Ranger.  I
will send His Majesty a copy."

"Thank you.  Medart out."

There was a brief silence while the ship sent the tape and Emperor
Davis watched it.  When his attention returned to Medart, he echoed the
Ranger's headshake.  "I see what you mean, Jim.  It's a good thing
she's with us, instead of the Order.  Do you think you can get her to

"With that lack of self-confidence, I doubt it."

"Considering the rest of what you've just told me, she'll get over
that. Ask her to think it over, at least.  It's possible that just
knowing we think she's suitable will do the trick.

"At any rate, I want a conference with you, her, and Chang's Command
Crew later today.  We need to get more information from her, and we
also have to do some planning.  How about 1600?  If you can't talk her
into it by then, Rick and I will give it a try."

Medart nodded.  "That sounds good, sir.  Considering the time zone she
lived in, she's probably still asleep; that'll give me a chance to go
over her records again, maybe find a good talking point."

"Good enough.  I'll talk to you again at 1600, then.  Out."

The screen went blank, and Medart picked up the printout, carried it to
his favorite armchair, and sat half reading it and half sunk in
thought.  Her lack of self-confidence was the real problem, all right;
it was hard enough convincing someone who had a normal amount, and not
always successful at that.


It was 0900 Standard, 0600 at the MacLeod's Landing time she was
accustomed to, when Corina was awakened by her doorchime.  "Who is
there?" she called, stretching herself out of bed.

"It's just me, Sunbeam," came from the door speaker.

"Come in," Corina called back, taking her kilt from the autocloset.
She slipped into it, then stuck her head around the partition.  "Can
you wait a few minutes while I brush myself?"

"Sure thing," Sunbeam replied.  "I'm yours to command, Sir Corina;
remember Captain Hobison assigned me to you yesterday?"

"I remember," Corina said.  "I do not wish to inconvenience you,
however.  I will be with you soon."  The closet, she was glad to see,
had cleaned her kilt; otherwise it would be looking rather bedraggled
by midday. She went through her morning routine, then walked into the
living area ready to face the new day.

"What do you want to do this morning?" Sunbeam asked.

"That is hard to say," Corina replied thoughtfully.  "It all depends on
what Ranger Medart has planned for me.  Right now, though, I would like
a glass of milk."  She started toward the service panel, but Sunbeam
was already there.

"I'll get it for you," Sunbeam said.  "I could use a glass myself."

"Thank you."  Corina wasn't used to having others do things for her,
but she sensed that Sunbeam was agitated about something and wanted to
move around, so she sat in one of the armchairs, tucking her feet under

She took the glass Sunbeam brought, enjoyed a deep swallow, then said,
"What is disturbing you, Sunbeam?  Can I help?"

"Well . . ." Sunbeam hesitated, then blurted, "It's that demonstration
you gave yesterday.  Stars above!  The whole ship's talking about how
you put down five top Marines with no more trouble than I'd have, oh,
swatting a fly! I'm about half scared to be in the same room with you!"

"You should not be," Corina said, projecting amusement to try and calm
the human Ensign.  "I am the same person you met yesterday, and I
certainly had no intention of frightening anybody."

Sunbeam ventured a half smile.  "Maybe not, but you did a great job
without meaning to, then."

"Are the Marines all right?"

"They're fine, from what I hear," was the slightly steadier reply.
"Except for their pride; that was pretty badly battered."  Sunbeam
paused, then grinned.  "Four of them, anyway.  That cute Sandeman keeps
saying how pretty you are, and what a warrior you'd be if you'd been
lucky enough to be born on Sandeman.  If I didn't know better, I'd say
he has a crush on you."

"I am quite content being Irschchan," Corina said, no longer needing to
pretend her amusement.  "Though I must admit his compliments are
flattering . . .  I do regret causing the others distress, though the
demonstration was necessary.  Nor was there any dishonor in their
defeat; they did as well as possible for those who lack Talent."

Sunbeam looked more cheerful.  "Maybe it would help if you told them

"I will, then, at the first opportunity."

"And you should see Colonel Greggson!"  Sunbeam barely managed to
suppress a giggle.  "He's grumping around the ship like an old bear,
snapping at everyone.  I don't think he's too fond of you.  Maybe I
shouldn't say it, but he keeps talking about an oversized kitten making
monkeys out of his men."

"He seemed to dislike me even before that," Corina said.

"Probably.  He isn't too fond of non-humans, and he doesn't even like
many of us.  Sometimes I don't think he even likes himself.  But there
aren't many of that kind aboard Chang; most of our people are really
nice.  You'll like them."

There was another chime at the door.  Without bothering to find out who
it was, Corina called out, "Come in."

Medart entered, and she and Sunbeam stood.

"I'd like to talk to Sir Corina alone," he told Sunbeam.  "Can you find
something to keep yourself occupied till we're done?"

"Can I ever!" Sunbeam exclaimed happily.  "I've been trying to finish
that new xenology tape for days!"

Medart shook his head slowly, watching her leave with a lopsided grin.
Then he seated himself in the other armchair and gazed intently at
Corina for several seconds.  She returned the look with equal
intensity, wishing she could get through this unusual human's mind

Finally he spoke.  "I have to ask you something very important, Sir
Corina.  I don't want you to answer me now; I just want you to think
about it for awhile.  Will you do that?"

"Of course," she replied, puzzled by his strangely hesitant manner.

"I was talking to the Emperor again earlier today.  I spent most of the
morning studying your records, then told him what I'd found.  We were
both quite impressed."  Medart paused, seeming unsure of himself, then
hurried on.  "We need more Rangers, especially non-human ones, and you
more than qualify. We're--I'm asking you to consider joining us."

Corina's first reaction was to wonder about Medart's mental stability.
He couldn't possibly be serious!

No, from the look on his face, he was serious.  "I cannot," she
protested, shaking her head.  "I have not even finished school--I am to
graduate this summer, and Thark did not insist I join the Prime Chapter
until then--I am only twenty-two, Standard, I could not possibly--"

"Hold it," Medart interrupted mildly.  "You said you'd think about it
before you answered.  I'm keeping you to that."

"Urr . . . all right."  Corina nodded reluctantly.  She would not be
graduating, or joining the Prime Chapter, or . . .  She forced those
thoughts from her mind.  The past was past; she had to go on.  "I did
say that.  But I will not change my mind."

"Don't be too sure," Medart said.  "At least three of us said the same
thing, and they're part of the group now."

Both were silent for almost a minute, with Corina trying to think of
some way to change the subject, and at last she succeeded.  "I have an
idea I would like to try, Ranger, if you have no objection."

"That depends on the idea.  What is it?"

It wasn't really a strong conviction, more of a feeling, but Corina
said, "Unlike Thark, I believe that humans, at least some, do have
Talent and simply do not know how to use it.  Were you an Irschchan,
with a mind shield as strong as the one you certainly possess, I would
be sure that your other Talents were equally strong.  What I would like
to do, if I can get past your screen, is to find out if that is the
case.  If it is, I would then teach you to use your Talent."

Medart sat in silent shock.  Esper ability?  Him?  The psych people
kept trying to find real espers, but until Corina revealed her Talent--
despite what she'd said about the Rhine experiments, he didn't consider
them either complete or conclusive--he'd heard of nothing he found
convincing.  If he weren't adaptable, though, he wouldn't be a Ranger;
after a few seconds, he said, "You really think there's a chance of

"A chance--that is all I am certain of, but yes, I think there is."

"Let's try for it, then."

"One caution," she said.  "Even if you have the potential I think
possible from your shield, I have never trained anyone before."

"That's all right.  I'm willing to take the chance if you are."

"Very well.  You will have to let down your screen, however, before we
can accomplish anything.  It would be best if you can drop it
willingly, though since you were unaware of its existence, that may not
be possible.  If not, perhaps we can weaken it by inducing a relaxed
emotional state.  I will not attempt to break through with darlas,
though I am sure I could, because it would be extremely painful at
best, and it would probably damage or destroy your mind.  Nor, most
certainly, will I do what was done during the struggles to establish
the Order."

Omnivorous curiosity was part of a Ranger's job description; Medart
indulged his.  "What was that?"

Corina's ears went back in distaste.  "The infliction of systematic
pain, weakening both the will and the ability to resist."

"I wouldn't want that," Medart agreed.  "We try the voluntary part
first, right?  You'll have to tell me how to do it, though; until you
said something about it yesterday, I never even considered the
possibility of having one.  And which is it--shield or screen?"

"The terms are used interchangeably, though technically a screen is
less powerful than a shield.  I will try to be more precise henceforth.
Yours is a shield, and I am not sure I can tell you in words how to let
it down; you may have to work that out.  It can be described as a sort
of mental force field, with your mind as generator and field both.  You
have to relax, deactivate the generator as it were."

Medart closed his eyes, leaned back in the chair, and relaxed all his
muscles.  Corina concentrated on his shield, ready to slip through the
smallest opening, watching his face as he tried something totally
beyond his experience.

A sort of mental force field, Medart thought.  He knew how to turn off
a standard field; all that took was touching a control.  This was a lot
more nebulous.  He didn't have any switches to throw or dials to turn,
he had to deactivate part of himself.  Relax, she'd said.  What were a
couple of those tricks Jasmine had tried to teach him?

Deep breathing, he remembered.  That was supposed to help, as long as
you didn't overdo and hyperventilate.  In and hold, then out and hold
was the pattern.  He began the exercise, doing the best he could to
relax--though he couldn't help wondering how he'd know if he succeeded.

After what seemed like an hour, he opened his eyes.  "How'm I doing?"

"I noticed no reduction in field strength," Corina said.  "You are
too--it is difficult to put properly.  Defensive, perhaps, or suspicious.
If this is to work, you must trust me."  She thought for a minute, then
took the dagger from her belt and held it out to the Ranger, hiding a
wince of anticipation at his touch.  "Perhaps it will be easier if I am
not armed."

Medart took the soul-blade, too surprised not to.  Unlike Dawson, he
knew the blade's significance, and could appreciate Corina's action.
She had to be really determined about this working, he thought.
Thark's betrayal must have hurt even more than he'd gathered earlier.
"Let's give it another try, then.  But it isn't easy turning off
something you never knew was on."

"True."  Corina was surprised to find his touch on her blade didn't
bring discomfort.  That was highly unusual, but she was becoming
accustomed to unusual things around this human.  "Again, try to relax.
I will continue to check your progress."

"Right."  For the second time, Medart closed his eyes and began the
deep-breathing routine.  In and hold . . . body relaxed . . . out and
hold . . . cat-clean scent . . . in and hold . . . cat-and-mouse . . .
oh, hell!

"What is it, Ranger?"  There had been a flash, an instant of touch too
fast for her to grasp and expand, then nothing.

"This isn't going to work, and I think I know what the problem is.
Every time I try to relax, I see those four Marines stunned on the deck
and the other one with your knife at his throat."

"So your undermind considers me dangerous, is trying to protect you
from that.  Yes, that is reasonable."  Corina thought for a moment.  "I
seemed to get the impression of memory-smell, though I cannot be sure.
And perhaps of a small feline.  When MacLeod discovered Irschcha, he
thought of us at first as 'overgrown pussycats', and other humans
seemed to agree.  Perhaps if you thought of me as some sort of domestic

Medart considered that idea, then chuckled.  "I used to raise Siamese
cats, and you Irschchans do remind me of them.  It's worth a try."

Kimi and Saren, his first pair.  Not Saren, who'd been on the blocky
side for a Siamese; young Losinj was more like Kimi, slender and
incredibly graceful.  She'd climb up on his lap, butt his chin with her
head to demand that he scratch behind her ears . . .

Corina, observing carefully, felt his shield start to weaken.  That
continued until she was able to catch a mental picture of herself, with
parts of her fur more deeply colored, curled up on the Ranger's lap and
purring with contentment while he gently scratched behind her ears.

She echoed his amusement silently, then began examining his mind
pattern.  She was careful not to let him realize what she was doing,
though she was reasonably sure he could not feel her check.  That was
both quick and thorough, his mental "atmosphere" far less murky than
the other humans she had touched--and his patterns were clear as well,
easy to read and work with. His Talent was unmistakable--his potential
Talent, she corrected herself; he might not be able to learn its use.

She could at least try activating his latent telepathic ability.  That
might be somewhat delicate, given his humanity, but with such clear
patterns, it should not be particularly difficult.  She knew the
theory, and Thark had done the same for her; it was merely a matter of
redirecting the mental impulses of communication from the speech center
to the TP center, something she ought to be able to do without him even
realizing the change was being made.

*That is a little better,* she thought at him while pretending to speak
aloud.  *Perhaps if we combine what you are doing now with a discussion
of something else for awhile, it will be more effective.*

"Yeah, maybe."  Excellent, Corina thought.  He could definitely
receive, then--a very good sign.  "What do you want to talk about?"

*It does not really matter.  Something you like, a memory you find
relaxing or humorous.*  She felt her ears twitch nervously, hoped he
did not notice.  The redirection she was attempting was indeed simple,
but delicate with the human-different patterns however clear they were,
and she needed no extra complications.

"There aren't too many of those in a Ranger's life," Medart said
slowly. It was rather like listening to a simultaneous echo, Corina
thought as she very cautiously nudged the flow of impulses.  "It's a
damn good life, don't get me wrong, but it doesn't have many laughs,
and the most satisfying parts are usually the result of a lot of work,
and sometimes pain."  He chuckled, ruefully.  "Exactly what I shouldn't
be telling someone I'm trying to get to join us, I guess--but if you
pay attention to Imperial news, you picked up on that for yourself.  As
someone said a lot of years ago, Rangers and active Life Nobles tend to
get into 'dangerously interesting situations'."

It seemed like a good enough subject, as well as having a strong
bearing on the offer he had just made her, so Corina pursued it.
*True.  I find it difficult to believe, however, that individuals of
such value are permitted to place their lives at serious risk so

Medart chuckled.  "We're perfectly aware of our value, believe me, and
we're just as fond of life as anyone else--maybe more so, since we're
at risk so often.  But there're some things worth the risk--a feeling
you share, or you wouldn't be here."

*Also true,* Corina conceded.  *The Empire has given my people much;
saving it for them, and others, is something I think well worth the
risk I took.  But I am a private individual; no one may forbid me to
take whatever risks I judge necessary.*

Medart grew thoughtful, making it easier for Corina to establish the
mental pathway she was working at.  He was still speaking aloud,
though.  "We aren't, but that evaluation is still up to us; if we think
the situation's worth risking a Ranger, or if it needs our abilities,
we go in ourselves.  If not, we send in someone else--and that's a hell
of a lot harder, I'll tell you right now."

*Thinking of one's own life objectively is difficult,* Corina agreed.
*I believe I would find it difficult to think of my life as having more
value than another person's.*

*Or a group's,* Medart said, speech now echoing telepathy.  *You learn
eventually, but it is hard, especially at first.  We've all made at
least one bad call, usually going in when we should've sent someone.
That hasn't been fatal so far, and doesn't even always mean getting
hurt--but Steve Tarlac's first solo mission came within an hour or so
of being his last.*

*I believe I have heard about that incident,* Corina sent, *but would
you mind refreshing my memory?*

*It got made into a holoshow, so I'd be surprised if you hadn't--but
okay, why not?  He got captured by a group of rebels--a lot smaller
scale than this rebellion, just one system--who beat him with a whip
they'd soaked in a particularly nasty poison.  He'd refused a comm
implant for reasons he never explained, so I can't argue them, but it
meant he couldn't call for help.  If it hadn't been for a young camper
who rescued him, and one of the rebels who decided to call the Marines
when a Ranger got hurt, he'd have died of stingweed poisoning.  The
rebel was killed by his former colleagues before Marines could get to
him to protect him, but the youngster earned a Life Dukedom.*

*I believe I do remember,* Corina sent.  Medart's voice had kept
getting softer, and by the time he finished, he was using only
telepathy.  The redirection was successful, the new pathway now
established.  Still, Corina hoped he would not realize it right away,
would instead remain intent on the conversation for at least a few
minutes more to strengthen the new pattern. *The young man was David
Scanlon, was he not?  And he cared for Ranger Tarlac in a cave, was in
the middle of a gun battle with the rebels when the Marines arrived.  I
have wondered if that part was the holo director's dramatic license, or
if it actually happened that way.*

*That was how it happened,* Medart assured her.  *Scanlon wasn't about
to give up, either, according to the Marines' testimony.  He insisted
that one of them come into the cave to prove @'s identity before he'd
give up his blaster--and when he did, he only had one half-exhausted
powerpack, and a knife for a backup.  That was one brave and determined
young man.*

*I must agree.  Ranger Tarlac was most fortunate he and the unusual
rebel were in the area.*

*Right, but the Traiti'll tell you it was the Circle of Lords looking
after him.  Speaking of which, how do you feel about religion?*

*I know it is a subject both important and sensitive to humans, so I
normally hesitate discuss it.  To most Irschchans, religion is a rather
peculiar aberration; while a deity or deities may exist, they are
unnecessary and none have shown any proof of themselves.  I prefer to
regard them as interesting possibilities.  May I ask you the same

*I was raised Omnist, and it stuck; I believe in one Creator and a wide
assortment of secondary gods.  I have no more proof than you do, but
since that's how I was raised and I can't disprove their existence, I
accept them, though I'm not what you'd call devout.  Most of us are
either Omnist or agnostics, like you, and the rest aren't dogmatic
about their beliefs being the only truth.*  He chuckled.  *Naturally,
since the Empire doesn't promote any given religion or lack thereof.*

*Quite understandable, from what I have read of human history.*  Corina
was no longer pretending vocal speech, though she wasn't being obvious
about her silence; he was doing well enough that he deserved a fair
chance to discover how he was "speaking" to her.

At that thought, he gave her a sharp look.  "How I'm doing what?"

*You have been using telepathy alone for the last few minutes,* Corina
sent with a purr.  *And you have surpassed your teacher; it was some
weeks before I could receive thoughts not specifically directed at me.*

Medart rose and stalked to where she sat still purring with
satisfaction, and glared at her, fists on his hips.  "You tricked me!"
Then he gave her one of his lopsided grins.  *But I guess you had to,
didn't you?*

*I am afraid so,* Corina agreed, pleased but not surprised by the
Ranger's rapid grasp of the situation.  "It was the only way I could
get past your shield."

"How long?"

"Since that mental picture you had of me curled up in your lap.  It
relaxed and amused you enough that you dropped your shield to the point
where I could get past."

"Well, I'll . . . be . . . damned," Medart said, half in admiration and
half in wonder.  "I never felt a thing."

"You were not supposed to," Corina said calmly.  "If you had, the
procedure would have been a failure."

"Can I work it on humans?  Did you find anything else?"

"I know of no reason you could not.  In fact, you should find it easier
with other humans than with me, because the basic mind pattern ought to
be more similar.  As for your other question, you do have much
potential; it remains to be seen if you can develop it.  Your mind
shield can be made stronger with practice, and there is unusually
powerful darlas latent.  I sensed no traces of the other usual

She paused, then continued, puzzled.  "There is also something else,
but I cannot be sure what it is.  I have never before sensed such an
aspect of Talent.  Even describing it vaguely is difficult."  She
paused again, laying her ears back in a frown.  "The closest I can come
would be to call it a sort of darlas in reverse, but that is almost
pathetically inadequate."

Medart could feel her puzzlement changing to amusement, echoed it with
some of his own when she sent, *And Thark believes humans are
unTalented! Undeveloped and untrained, most certainly, but hardly
unTalented.  You have not bred for it, even as indirectly as we have,
so the percentage of Talented humans is probably much lower than it is
for Irschchans, but--*

*--we're hardly the total incompetents he thinks we are,* Medart

"True.  However, he does not know that and would not be convinced
merely by being told, even if we knew his location and were able to
communicate with him; his beliefs, once established, require
overwhelming proof to be changed." Her ears twitched.  "I have thought
about contacting him telepathically, but even if he were to accept my
mind-touch, which I am certain he would not, he no longer trusts me
enough to believe my unsupported word."

"I'm afraid you're right," Medart agreed.  "There's not going to be any
easy way to end this Crusade of his.  I'm just hoping the information
you've already given us, and the help you're still going to give, will
let us stop it without too much bloodshed."

"I hope so, as well," Corina said, her tone as serious as his.
"Irschchan culture was quite chaotic and warlike at one time, but the
Order was a civilizing influence, and the idea of unnecessary bloodshed
has become quite unpleasant."

"Civilizing influence?  I suppose so," Medart said with less than total
agreement.  "It did cut down on warfare, which is a major benefit--but
I still say it caused stagnation, too.  Your progress slowed from
faster than ours to almost nothing after the Order took over, in the
name of stability. Even slower than the Traiti, and for them gradual
progress is the norm.  It took you fifteen hundred years to go from a
crude aircraft to just a system-capable spacecraft--it took Terra less
than a hundred."

"That was fortunate for you," Corina said with a touch of pique.
"Otherwise Terra would be an Irschchan subject world rather than the
center of a growing Empire."  Then her tone grew softer.  "But I was
raised an Imperial citizen, and I am glad of it.  If the Academy
accepts me, I will be able to travel, always finding out new things . . .
meeting people of all races and species . . ."

Her voice trailed off, and Medart was struck by the sudden enthusiasm
and warmth replacing her normal controlled formality.  No, he mused,
she'd never be happy in a society as static as Irschcha's, even as a
member of its ruling elite.

She was quiet now, gazing wide-eyed into nowhere, and Medart decided to
try his new ability.  He sent a faint, wordlessly-questing thought at
her, and was rewarded with a mental image she had of herself.  She was
clad in Imperial Navy service blue with an ensign's stripe, standing on
the bridge of a ship. The vessel appeared to be much smaller than the
Chang, and it was highly imaginative--didn't correspond to any actual
class--but he got the feeling it might be a courier or perhaps a scout.

He withdrew, letting the picture fade from his mind.  So that was her
dream.  She could achieve it easily with her ability, of course, and
more . . . yet what a waste it would be.  Anything short of the Rangers
would be a waste as far as she was concerned, but he knew he couldn't
force her into that decision.  There were compensations, sure, but it
was still a tough job, one that had to be taken on willingly.  He could
and would use all his powers of persuasion; he could not and would not
use any form of coercion.

He'd been turned down once before, which had been disappointing--but
Corina's refusal would be worse.  He wanted to make her accept the
Empire's need of her, its desperate urgency to make the best possible
use of such outstanding minds--especially, now, a non-human's.  Linda
Ellman might have found it easier to persuade the young Irschchan, he
thought.  She'd said Steve Tarlac had had a similar lack of
self-confidence when she'd recruited him. But that was nothing but idle
dreaming; this was up to him, not to Linda.

He shrugged, then said, "Sir Corina?"

She shivered slightly, returning to reality.  "Yes, Ranger?"

"It's almost noon.  Why don't I call Sunbeam, then you two have lunch
and get her to show you the ship?  I have some work to do, and if
you're planning on going to the Academy you'll want to know all you can
about the Navy."

"Yes, I think I should.  Personal experience is far superior to mere
study.  But you need to rest, give your undermind a chance to adjust to
the idea of telepathy.  Your overmind accepts it now; the undermind is
normally slower to accept change."

"I can't really rest," Medart said slowly.  "I don't have the time.  I
can work on something that won't take too much thinking, though.  Good

"I suppose it will have to be, though true rest is better."  While
Medart called Sunbeam, Corina thought.  Her former teacher meant well,
she was sure, had turned traitor out of conviction that it was
necessary and not for gain . . . yet the thing which had made him think
the humans unfit for rule, their lack of Talent, was not the case.  How
would he take it when he could finally be convinced of his error?
Would he do as honor demanded, or would he continue his treason?

"We'll find out when it comes to that, won't we?" Medart responded.
"This works between us; I'd like to try it on Sunbeam, make sure it
really does work for me with humans."

Fascinating that he could read her undirected thoughts while doing
something totally unconnected, Corina mused.  She could prevent that by
shielding, of course, but it was her first experience with it, and she
preferred not to.  Such contact was not unusual between Talented family
members or extremely close friends, but Medart was neither, and she had
not found herself reading him that way.

"Maybe you know you shouldn't be able to, so you can't, but I don't, so
I can?"

Corina purred, wishing she could laugh.  "That is as reasonable an
explanation as we are likely to get, I would say.  But I am not sure I
can approve of you attempting to read Sunbeam.  It is honorable to
probe the unTalented only when truly necessary, since they cannot
defend themselves--and you do not know your own strength; if you should
accidentally use darlas against her, she could be seriously hurt."

"I don't want to hurt her, of course," Medart said, "but I think this
is necessary.  I need to know all I can about Talent, especially yours
and mine--and so far you're the only one I've read."

"That is true."  Corina thought for a moment, then nodded.  "I can
monitor, and if you should begin using darlas, protect her.  It is a
risk, but in this case justifiable."

The door signal chimed, and Corina called, "Come in, Sunbeam."

"Ready for lunch, Sir Corina?" the small ensign asked as she entered.
"I sure am!"

"In a moment, Sunbeam," Corina replied.  *Try now, Ranger, while I
speak to her.*

*You can talk and still monitor?*

*If you can read me while thinking of something else, why not?*  Corina
continued aloud, to Sunbeam.  "Did you get to finish your xenology

"I sure did," was the enthusiastic reply.  "It was fascinating, too--I
may take a full course on it, and who knows? I may decide to switch to
Sciences instead of staying a Line officer.  I just wish there were
some way I could do both--there's so much to learn, and so much to do!"

Corina purred.  "Perhaps there is, or could be.  I do not see the two
desires as exclusive; perhaps Ranger Medart can investigate a combined
Line/Science section."

"Not a bad idea," Medart said.  "I'll have the Navy look into it, and
if there aren't any major problems, ask His Majesty to implement it."

"Great!" Sunbeam exclaimed.  "Would you like to borrow the tape, Sir
Corina?  I think you'd enjoy it, and if you're going to the Academy it
might help you pick one of your specialties."

"I would appreciate that.  I do expect some difficulty in choosing
those; I have found so few things that do not interest me that I will
probably need considerable help finding three or four to concentrate

Then Corina felt the Ranger's thought.  *No trouble, she's not even
screened.  But it seemed somehow harder with her than with you, not
easier. Any idea why?*

*Not immediately, no,* Corina replied, puzzled.  *As I said earlier, it
should be the other way around.  Let me think about it, please.*

*Okay.*  Medart continued aloud, to both.  "Well, why not go eat?  Then
give her the grand tour, Sunbeam, anything she wants to see.  Just have
her at Briefing Room One by 1600."

"Yes, sir."


Lunch was good, and the tour was interesting, if tiring.  The ship had
more machinery of more differing types than Corina had ever seen in one
place before, and they covered a lot of territory.  Despite extensive
use of the intraship shuttles, that meant a lot of walking.  Normally
that would have caused Corina no problems, but hard metal decks instead
of grass or rubberoid sidewalks made her feet hurt.  That made their
arrival at the Security section a relief, since Sunbeam had promised it
would be their last stop.

It was obvious to Corina that Colonel Greggson wasn't particularly glad
to see them, but he was polite, clearly on his best behavior--until
Major Dawson entered.

"Good afternoon, Sir Corina," Dawson said with a grin.  "That's quite a
wallop you pack--almost like getting hit by a Traiti.  I don't suppose
you could teach me how to do it?"

"I am afraid not," Corina replied, remembering their earlier meetings
and his weak screen.  "You simply do not have the right mental

"Oh."  Dawson looked disappointed for a moment, then shrugged.  "Well,
I never could sing, either."

"I am sorry.  But at least Lieutenant DarLeras told me you would not be
shamed by what happened in the exercise."

"Not at all," Dawson said cheerfully.  "We got a little teasing, of
course, but that's no problem any more.  I just reminded a couple of
the more persistent kidders why we'd been picked for SecuDiv in the
first place."

"Oh?  May I ask how?"  Corina could have probed, but satisfying her
curiosity wasn't a valid reason for using Talent against one who had

"Telepathy's part of your Talent; why not take a look?"

"Thank you."  Invited, there was no breach of honor, so Corina scanned
him.  From his point of view, she saw him working out in a gym with a
couple of his kidders.  Either of the two, from their relative sizes,
should have been able to defeat Dawson--but that wasn't the case.
Using close-combat techniques distilled from the most effective of
Terra's many martial arts, he had both "disabled" or "killed" in less
than thirty seconds.

"Elegant!" she said in real admiration.  "I should get you to teach me

"Telepathy?" Sunbeam asked in amazement.  "I heard, but I didn't really

"Yes, dammit, telepathy!" Greggson snapped.  "That's how she managed to
humiliate my men!"

"I do not understand your anger," Corina said quietly.  "It was simply
a demonstration of Talent, the way it can be used against the
unTalented, as Thark plans to do.  I did not intend to humiliate
anyone, and they have said they do not feel humiliated."

"Damn your intentions!" Greggson rasped.  "No oversized kitty is going
to make fools of my men and get away with it!"

"Hey, Colonel," Dawson said, "it's okay, we--"

Greggson glared at him.  "Keep out of this, Major.  Get back to your
post.  And keep your mouth shut."

"As the Colonel orders," Dawson said with icy correctness, and left.

"That goes for you, too, Ensign.  Wait outside."

"But I'm supposed to--" Sunbeam objected.

"Wait outside."

Sunbeam hesitated, looked at Corina.  "Sir Corina--"

"Go ahead.  I will be fine."

The young ensign left, but her hesitation seemed to inflame Greggson
still further.  "You don't give orders aboard this ship, Sir Corina,"
he said coldly.  "Not even if you are Ranger Medart's special
assistant.  You have no military authority."

"I merely reassured Ensign Yamata of my welfare," Corina retorted,
controlling her own anger.  "Ranger Medart did assign her to me; from
what I have read, that places her under my command, despite my lack of
military rank. She is a most conscientious officer, and--"

She fell silent when Greggson stepped toward her, his right hand
closing into a fist.  Surely he would not strike her . . . but he was
angry, and a Marine, and shielded--  Her hand, seemingly of its own
volition, went to the hilt of her soul-blade as she felt a surge of

"No."  Greggson shook his head, backed off a step with visible
reluctance.  "I won't give you the satisfaction, you little--"

Corina interrupted, fear suddenly overcome by exasperation.  "It is not
your men's pride that concerns you, Colonel; they felt no shame, as
they should not.  It is your own.  You ought to be pleased to have
accurate knowledge of your enemy's abilities.  Should I have let your
men defeat me, merely to save your pride, then allow them to go against
Thark believing him to be as easy a target?  I merely stunned them; he
will be trying to kill them."

She turned and stalked out under Greggson's furious glare, shaking
inwardly at her defiance of him despite its necessity.  What was it
about her that made him loathe her so?  She was not human, granted, but
that seemed too minor a reason for such disturbance.  It was out of
proportion for him to take offense at her very existence.  That made
his presence discomforting, and it was a definite relief to walk
through the door and rejoin Sunbeam.

"He really hates you, Sir Corina," Sunbeam said as they left the
Security area.  "It isn't just not liking you any more.  He's awfully
proud of his work--I think it's all he has--and it looks like he took
your demonstration personally."  The young ensign was clearly worried.
"He may try to cause you serious trouble.  I ought to tell Ranger

"I see no need to bother him with it," Corina said.  "I appreciate your
concern, but I believe you worry too much.  Colonel Greggson knows my
status here; he will not harm me."

She didn't have to probe to feel Sunbeam's doubt, but all her escort
said was, "You're probably right."  Then Sunbeam glanced at her chrono.
"Uh-oh, better get you to the briefing room; it's 1545 already!"

They arrived at Briefing Room One with a few minutes to spare, and
Sunbeam left while Corina entered.  She was looking forward to the
meeting, if only for the chance to sit down and rest her feet.

The briefing room, she saw at once, had been completely rearranged.
The standard conference table and the holo stage were gone, replaced by
a semi-circular table.  Its flat side had been put against the wall,
just under a screen that was normally used to display graphic aids.
Chairs lined the curved edge, already occupied by the officers who had
been at the earlier meeting.  Greggson had somehow arrived before her,
and was seated two places to Medart's left.  The Ranger was in the
middle of the semi-circle, one empty chair at his right.  He motioned
Corina to it, then stood and called the group to attention as the
screen flickered with scrambler blue, and cleared.

Corina recognized both men on the screen at once, from innumerable
photos and holograms.  The one on the right, in civilian clothes, was
Emperor Charles Davis.  He looked rather tired, she thought, but
between the Traiti War and Thark's Crusade, she thought, he had every
reason to be fatigued.

The one on the left, in Ranger uniform, was Crown Prince Rick Forrest.
He didn't look quite as tired, she thought, but there was still strain
on his face.

"As you were," the Emperor said.  The conferees sat, and Davis
continued.  "This is a war council, not an Audience, so we'll skip the
ceremony and get to work.  Sir Corina, you have the Empire's thanks for
your courageous and timely warning.  Can you give us any further idea
of when this rebellion will start, or where?"

Corina took a deep mental breath, feeling badly out of her depth.  "Not
with any degree of certainty, Your Majesty."

"Any guesses?" Forrest asked.

"Guesses?  Yes, sir.  If Thark reacts as usual, I would expect the
Order to strike as soon as possible, perhaps within five or ten days.
He tends, as he admits, to be somewhat impatient, and that will be even
more true since his treason has been revealed before he was ready.  The
location is more difficult, since the Order will undoubtedly have
multiple targets.  He himself will take the center of power, of course--"

"He'd try for the Palace?" Davis interrupted.  "He'd know better than
that.  It's much too heavily defended, especially after Tarlac's

Blades! Corina thought nervously.  How to contradict the Emperor?  Not
easily, not if you were a youngling with a strong desire to crawl under
the table and hide!  Being teased about arguing with him was one thing,
actually having to do it something far different.  She had no choice,
though.  "Its guards, however numerous, are humans and unTalented
Irschchans, perhaps a few Traiti.  They will be little or no defense
against Thark and the Seniors of the Prime Chapter, even if some few
have mind-screens or shields.  Nor can you count on mechanical
defenses; they are operated by your Palace Guard, which renders them as
vulnerable as the guards themselves.  If compelling a Guardswen is not
possible, controls can be operated by TK."

Davis frowned, while Medart sent her encouragement.  *Good going.  He
won't bite you.  And don't think about hiding under the table; you're
doing fine.*

*I think otherwise,* she sent back, though she was grateful for his
support.  *I am frightened!*

*So?* Medart replied.  *You're functioning just fine anyway.*

"Aren't you perhaps overestimating their abilities?" the Emperor asked

"No, sir, she's not," Medart answered for her.  "You saw the tape of
yesterday's demonstration; if a young student could take out this
ship's top five Security people, including a mind-shielded Sandeman
warrior, I find it very easy to believe that a group, all of whom have
the degree of experienced Talent she describes, could take even the
Palace.  She says her Talent is above average, but so are theirs."

"How would you rate them by comparison, Sir Corina?" Forrest asked.

"Thark is stronger, of course; the High Adept, by definition, has the
strongest Talent in the Order.  The Seniors have approximately my
strength, but are better trained since they were raised in Order
schools and I was not. They also have far more experience than I do, as
Ranger Medart pointed out."

"You're the only expert we have on the Order," Davis said.  "How would
you recommend we defend the Palace?"

"As it stands, Your Majesty, the Palace cannot be defended from such an
attack."  Corina hesitated, unwilling to go on.

*Finish it,* Medart urged her.

*They will not like it,* Corina thought nervously, but she said, "My
recommendation, under these circumstances, is that Your Majesty and
Prince Forrest leave Terra in a ship crewed fully by humans, its
destination unknown to anyone not aboard, and remain there until Thark
and the Order are no longer a threat."

A murmur around the conference table was disapproving.

"I don't like the idea of running," the Emperor said, "but I can't deny
it's the logical thing to do.  Ranger Medart?"

"How sure are you that it'll be Thark himself and the Prime Chapter
after the Palace?" Medart asked Corina.

"I am positive," she said.  "He will not risk failure by using less
than the best against his most important target."

Medart nodded, then returned his attention to the screen.  "In that
case, I'd say to follow her recommendation, sir.  Your safety's a lot
more important than the Palace Complex--and if he does move against the
Palace itself, we'll have unarguable proof of his and the Order's

"Very well." Davis didn't look happy, Corina thought, but he did look
decisive.  "We will leave on the Empress Lindner as soon as this
conference is over, then.  Kennard and Menshikov are here; I'll leave
them in charge. Anything else?"

"Leaving them will place them at hazard, sire," Corina ventured.

"I'm aware of that," Davis said.  "I'd prefer not to, but there are
other things I have to consider.  The Sovereign is prohibited from
risking @'s life if there's any choice, and the Successor should not
except in a critical emergency when no other Ranger is available, so
Rick and I are expected to think of our own safety first.  But--give me
your opinion as an ordinary citizen, Sir Corina.  How would you feel if
all four of us fled to safety, leaving the Palace Guards to face a
rebellion alone?"

Corina thought about that, then inclined her head.  "I see, Your
Majesty.  While it would be the sensible thing to do, it would give the
impression of not caring about those who serve you."

"Which is precisely why they'll be staying.  Ranger Medart, you look
like you have something on your mind."

"Yes, sir."  Medart looked up, at nothing in particular.  "Unless
they're intercepted and destroyed, which isn't very likely," he said
quietly, "someone is going to have to face Thark and the Seniors.  Sir
Corina says the Guards won't have a chance, and Kennard and Menshikov
are no more qualified to do it than I am."

Corina suddenly felt completely exposed and completely alone.  At his
words, everyone except Medart himself had turned to stare at her.

"No!"  She shook her head, keeping herself from yowling by sheer force
of will.  "I cannot--I am not good enough--"

"Wrong," Davis said.  "I'd hoped Ranger Medart could persuade you, but
he obviously hasn't been able to; may I ask why?"

"I have just said, sire.  I will do everything I can to help--I am
doing it--but I am not qualified for that."

Davis shook his head.  "You're the only one who has even a chance
against Thark, and you're as qualified as any of the rest of us to be a
Ranger--maybe more so, as Ranger Medart told me, with that Talent of
yours.  None of us asked for this job, and none of us felt capable of
handling it at first. You can do what we cannot.  Will you face Thark
for us, as a Ranger?"

Corina remained silent, overwhelmed by his intensity.

"Let me," Medart said quietly.  "Corina, you came to us originally
because your honor--the part of it we call loyalty--demanded it.  It
wouldn't let you permit Thark to destroy the Empire.  Right?"

"Yes."  Her answer was almost inaudible.

"Will that same honor let you stop now, when you know you're the only
chance the Empire has?"  That might be putting it a bit strongly,
Medart thought--but after her demonstration, it might also be the
precise truth.

She stared down at the table for what seemed like eons before she was
able to answer.  "No."

Looking up, she continued.  "You are correct.  I will face Thark.  But
I see no need to do so as a Ranger."

Tension built in the silent room as Corina thought.  It wasn't fair,
she felt.  They were trying to . . . perhaps force was not the right
word, but urge her into something she did not feel capable of.  It was
almost impossible for her to accept the idea that feeling unqualified
was part of what made her qualified.  It did not seem reasonable.  And
it was just too much!

Medart answered her unspoken thoughts.  "No, it isn't fair.  And the
reasoning may not be obvious, but from our experience, it is logical."

"This is just as much a war as the one we fought with the Traiti,"
Forrest added, with a curious glance at Medart.  "Even though the
Empire tries to be fair, Sir Corina, we can't always manage, especially
in this kind of emergency."

"Take some more time, Sir Corina," Emperor Davis said suddenly,
sounding sympathetic.  Forrest threw him a quick glance, so Davis
continued.  "It was a hard enough decision for us.  She's already had
to go through one drastic change; we can't expect her to accept the
idea of an even more drastic one so easily or quickly."

Corina felt a flood of relief.  "Thank you, Your Majesty!"

"So the little kitten can't take it," came a familiar voice.

Corina was shocked by the venom in the Security Chief's tone.  So were
others; everyone, from the Emperor on down, stared at the defiant

"That was totally uncalled-for, Colonel," Davis said coldly.  "One more
such outburst and you will be replaced.  You will apologize to Sir
Corina at once."

Corina thought for a moment that Greggson would refuse, but he finally
said, "Please forgive me, Sir Corina."  His tone was full of distaste,
but it was an apology; the Emperor looked unsatisfied, but said
nothing.  Corina wondered why.

*He doesn't want to have to relieve him, especially at this point,*
Medart sent.  *I don't know how he made it past the psych tests with
what I'd class as xenophobia and paranoia, but he did, and he's one of
the best Security Chiefs in the Fleet.  Still, it looks to me like he's
gone over the edge this time; once this rebellion's over, I'm going to
have him retested.*

She glanced at him and nodded.  Davis saw it, traded glances with
Forrest, then said, "That seems to conclude the council as such,
Captain Hobison.  You and your people are dismissed; please return to
your stations, and set course for Terra.  Ranger Medart, Sir Corina, I
would like you to remain."

All rose, Hobison and the Command Crew bowing before they left.  The
Emperor and Crown Prince reseated themselves, and Davis motioned the
two aboard Chang to do the same.  Then he leaned forward, looking at
them intently.  "It's obvious the two of you are holding something
back, something important.  Tell us about it."

*You tell them,* Medart sent.  *It's your field of expertise, after
all, not mine.*

*Yes, Ranger.*  At least, Corina thought, she had no reason to be
nervous about this.  "I have discovered that Ranger Medart has a high
degree of Talent, sire.  I have begun training him in its use, and we
have been `speaking'--primarily, he has been reassuring me--
telepathically throughout the conference."

"Controlled, reliable telepathy?" Davis asked, his expression intent.

"Fully, sire.  He also has the potential for strong darlas, and another
Talent aspect we have not yet been able to identify."

"Does that mean he'll be able to help you against Thark?" Forrest

"It is barely possible," Corina replied, "if we have the time to
develop them.  Telepathy is by far the easiest and fastest part of
Talent to train.  I would estimate it will take at least eight to
twelve days before he will be able to use his other abilities with even
a novice's degree of skill and reliability."

Davis frowned.  "Will that be enough to help at all?"

"Any assistance against Thark will be of help, Your Majesty," Corina

"That's cutting it pretty fine, though," Forrest said.  "You only give
Thark five to ten days before he attacks."

"They'll just have to do the best they can," Davis said, then turned to
Corina.  "Can you teach that to anyone else?"

"I can if the latent ability is present, sire.  And although I have no
really firm grounds to base it on, I am beginning to suspect, from what
I am learning from Ranger Medart, that most if not all Rangers do have
such ability latent.  There may be others as well; it appears that
humans do use what you call paranormal powers, hunches for example,
though not consciously and very weakly."

"When things get back to normal, I'd like you to check on that, and
train any who do have it.  For now, though, unless you have any more
stunbursts for us, we'd better finish up here and get back to work."

"That's all we have, sir," Medart replied.  He signalled Corina and the
two stood, bowing.  The men on the screen returned the courtesy, and
the screen cleared.

"I'm sorry, Corina," Medart said.  "It was a dirty trick to pull on
you, making you agree to face Thark the way I did, but can you accept
the fact that I had to do it?"

"I should be the one to apologize," she replied, continuing when she
sensed his surprise.  "It should not have been necessary for you to
point out what honor requires of me.  I suppose I knew, but was
unwilling to face it."

"Don't let that bother you.  It's not going to be either easy or fun,
and none of us blame you for being reluctant."

"No, it will not be either," she agreed.  "Thark is quite powerful.  It
is entirely possible that he will kill both of us."

"What're the odds?"

"Not good.  I estimate I have perhaps one chance in five of defeating
him, perhaps less."

Medart whistled.  "That's bad.  It doesn't change things, though; I'd
have done the same thing even if I'd known the odds earlier."

"Having been in your mind, I am sure of that."  Corina attempted a
purr, with little success.  "Nor would I expect otherwise from one in
your position. You may phrase it differently, but honor compels you,


As soon as they left the briefing room and were going toward one of the
intraship shuttles, Medart said, "I'd like to start that other training
you mentioned as soon as possible.  When can we do it, and is there
anything special you need?"

Once they were inside the shuttle, Corina answered.  "We can begin as
soon as you like.  We need quiet at first, as relaxation will speed
your learning of the basic techniques.  Afterward, you will need
volunteers for practice.  I do not like the idea of using unTalented
for that, but I see no choice; I can teach you only so much with myself
as your target.  The techniques are not difficult; you should be able
to learn them in an hour or less.  It is the practice, for control and
power, which will take most of your training time."

"Right.  Emperor Chang, take us to Sherwood Forest, please."

"Yes, Ranger," the ship replied, and the shuttle began moving.

Medart turned back to his assistant.  "Since you say relaxation's so
important, at least for basic training, we're going to what I think is
the most soothing part of the ship.  I like trees."

"So do I, but what is Sherwood Forest?  I do not remember seeing any
trees when Sunbeam was showing me the ship."

"Not likely you would, with her for a guide," Medart said, grinning.
"She's a city girl, all the way through.  Except for orientation, I
don't think she's ever been there.  If she thinks of trees at all, it's
probably just as potential furniture."

"It seems strange," Corina said, "that you, a Ranger, would take such
an interest in a young ensign."

"Not this one," Medart replied.  "It isn't just that she's impossible
to ignore, either.  I first heard about her when she was in her third
year at the Academy.  Her teachers were predicting that she'd end up
either getting herself kicked out of the Navy in disgrace, or as Chief
of Naval Operations, and I'd tend to agree.  She doesn't know it, but I
asked to have her assigned to my ship to give her the best chance at
the second; if anyone can keep her on the right heading without
breaking her spirit, it's David Hobison."  He laughed.  "As if just
running the Chang wasn't enough of a headache for him!"

The shuttle door slid open and they stepped out into a pleasant,
open-wooded area which, from all appearances, was on the surface of a
planet rather than inside the hull of a warship.  It was impossible,
Corina knew, but it certainly looked like the parkland was lit by a
brilliant yellow sun, while clouds drifted slowly across a blue sky.
Except for the odd sky color, it reminded her, with a sudden pang of
homesickness, of a small glade she used to visit almost daily.  Only
the fountain was missing.

She managed to bring her voice under control before speaking.  "It is
beautiful!  But how is it done?  And why?"

"It is, isn't it?" Medart agreed.  "The sky is simply glowpanels.
Clouds are Type II holograms, the sun's a Type IV.  If you want the
technical details, I'll have to refer you to Engineering; it's
something I've never had the occasion to go into deeply.

"As for why--Sovereign-class cruisers are the long-tour ones, sometimes
staying away from their home ports for years.  Even near a planet, only
a small part of the crew can be allowed shore leave at any one time.
If everyone were city-bred, like Sunbeam, that wouldn't be a problem,
but most aren't.  We had some pretty serious morale problems until
Ranger Ellman suggested this idea about five years ago.  It's proven
quite effective, well worth the investment in power and space.  Chang,
Lindner, and Yasunon are the only ones with them so far, though.  The
rest'll get them as soon as they go into Luna Base for a major refit."

They had been walking while he talked, and came to a halt beneath a
wide-spreading, though not very tall, tree.  Corina didn't recognize
the species, but liked its smell.

"Is this all right?" Medart asked.

"Fine," Corina said approvingly.  She glanced around, saw several
off-duty crewmembers strolling around, either singly or in pairs.  "If
you are certain we will not be disturbed, that is."

"I'm sure," Medart said with a chuckle.  He sat cross-legged, his back
against the treetrunk.  Corina also sat, facing him.

"You had best practice defense first," she said.  "If you cannot
protect yourself, nothing else I can teach you will be of any use."

Medart nodded, and she tried a gentle probe.  *You are wide open,
Ranger,* she told him.  *You will have to bring your shield under
voluntary control.  An automatic shield is adequate under most
circumstances; if you intend to attempt stopping Thark as you said at
the conference, it is not.*

*I understand that, but how?*

*If you can remember the way you felt, your mind pattern when we worked
this morning--*  She caught a sudden picture of herself holding the
sheathed blade at DarLeras' throat, then nothing.  "Very good, you have
it.  Now down again."

Seconds passed, then, *How's that?*

*Excellent,* she complimented him.  *You learn quickly.  Now I must
test you, to find your shield's present strength.  Prepare yourself.*

*Right.*  Medart's shield went back up, and Corina began probing,
gradually increasing the strength and intensity of her attack while the
Ranger fought to hold his shield.  His eyes closed, his fists clenched
with his effort.  He was starting to break out in a sweat when Corina
felt the shield waver and instantly released her pressure.

"Are you all right, Ranger?"

"I think so," Medart said, shaking his head experimentally.  "That was
. . . it was like nothing I've ever felt, ever even imagined."  He took
several deep breaths, relaxing, then asked, "Just how much force were
you using?"

"About half my maximum."

"How's that compare to Thark?"

"That is difficult to say."  Corina's ears went back slowly, a
thoughtful frown.  "I would estimate he has half again my strength, so
that would be perhaps a third of his maximum."

The Ranger looked grim.  "One chance in five?  Looks to me more like
one in fifty."

"You forget he trained me.  I know his patterns, can anticipate how and
where he is most likely to strike me, and strengthen my shield
accordingly. There is the added factor that this practice will benefit
me almost as much as it will you.  My estimate remains one in five."

"You know more about it than I do."  Despite his words, Medart was
doubtful.  "Do we try that again, or what?"

"That would be unwise now; it is more of a strain than you realize.  No
more than two, or at most three brief sessions like that per day, until
you gain strength.  It would be as well to begin teaching you to use
darlas, however.  It means going much faster than is usual for this
type of training, but our time is limited."

"It is that," Medart agreed.  "How do I go about darlas?"

"It is similar to telepathy, which you already know, but is projected
directly rather than through the TP center, and is much more powerful.
You must try to force a feeling of pressure, of constriction, on your

She raised her shield, holding it at half strength so she could feel
any success he might have.  "All right, go ahead."

She waited patiently, but felt nothing, so she lowered her shield
slightly.  Still nothing.  She dropped it even further, finally managed
to detect an extremely faint, almost nonexistent, touch.

Even that faded, and Medart looked at her with a frown.  "That didn't
seem to be working too well, did it?  What am I doing wrong?"

"It was indeed weak," Corina admitted, "but with my shield at minimum I
was able to detect something.  Each individual is different, even among
Irschchans, and though it is far clearer than most, your pattern
remains human.  You will simply have to keep trying until you find what
works for you. The potential is there."

"Okay, let's try it again."  Medart closed his eyes, and Corina set her
shield at about a third of its full strength.

After perhaps a minute, she felt a faint tingle.  It got stronger for a
moment, peaking at what felt like a gentle nudge before fading again.
She studied the Ranger's expression of concentration, and decided to
keep her shield up at the same intensity.  She would give him another
five minutes; that should not strain him unduly, and then she would end
the session.

      *      *      *      *      *

The next thing she knew, she was flat on her back in the grass, looking
up at Medart's worried face.  "Are you all right, Sir Corina?" he

She struggled to sit up, dazed, and felt him supporting her.

"Are you all right?" he asked again.

She took a quick self-inventory, decided she was well if uncomfortable,
and reassured him.  "I am unharmed, though I will have a headache for
some time.  What did you do?"

He hesitated for a moment, looking her over carefully.  "I'm not
certain.  Nothing seemed to be working, so I tried picturing a giant
anaconda--that's a Terran snake--wrapped around you, contracting.  I
finally got it good and clear, and you collapsed.  Are you sure you're
all right?"

Corina growled softly, disgusted at herself.  "Blades!  I should have
thought of that.  Unless you concentrate on words, I keep getting
pictures from you.  I should have realized your primary orientation was
visual, and guided you--"

"Oh, no, you don't," Medart interrupted.  "If there's any chewing out
to be done around here, I'll take care of it.  You said it yourself:
everyone's different, and you're not that familiar with human patterns.
And you've never taught before.  You can't be expected to anticipate
everything at once."

He gave her a quizzical look that reminded her of their first meeting.
"I hadn't realized how different in some ways, and how similar in
others, Irschchans and humans are until your shield fell.  I seemed to
almost be you for a couple of seconds, just before you blacked out.  I
glimpsed a lot of things, but I couldn't understand more than half of

Corina was sitting unsupported now, with Medart squatting on his heels
facing her.  She stared at him, then started searching intensively
through her memories of the last few minutes.  Her shield was still
down, and Medart followed her thoughts with no difficulty.

*Eyes closed . . . five minutes, then . . . picture . . . What's he--*
Then an image of herself tangled in an exaggeration of Medart's
visualization, a confused jumble that reminded the Ranger of
multi-colored spaghetti.  She started probing at it, using his actual
visualization to guide her as she finally tugged at what appeared to be
a key strand.  That made the `spaghetti' disappear, releasing a flood
of concept/imagery/experience into her mind, understandable only in
fragments that seemed to flow past and through her.

"Pattern rapport," she breathed in wonder.

"Right, I got that much," Medart said.  "But what is it?  I'm not sure
I understand anything about it but its name."

"It is an extremely unusual stress phenomenon," Corina said, picking
her words with care.  "It occurs when two very similar mind patterns
are in close physical proximity and under considerable stress.
Something--the Order is not sure what, but the most respected theory is
both underminds acting as one--apparently `decides' to relieve the
stress by combining whatever memories can be used to accomplish that

"But aren't human and Irschchan patterns too different for that to
happen?" Medart objected.  "That's what you seemed to think earlier, at

"I believed so, yes," Corina said slowly.  "Yet the Order's millennia
of experience cannot be totally wrong.  It had to be pattern rapport."

"Then either human and Irschchan patterns are closer than anyone's ever
suspected . . ."

"Or it is our own two basic patterns which are in phase."

"Uh-huh, that could--  Hey!  Remember, I told you I had more trouble
reading Sunbeam than I did reading you?"

"That must be the case, then, but I would like to know--"  Corina cut
that thought off before it could go somewhere she didn't want to

Medart, though he wasn't about to broadcast it, had a pretty good idea
what the pattern rapport might mean.  He wasn't at all familiar yet
with Talent, granted, but he did know what his problem was.  Apparently
so did what she called her undermind, and it agreed with him.  "I'd
suggest a hearty meal and a good night's sleep," he said.  "That was a
shock to both of us, and we'll solve our problems better in the
morning, when we've rested and steadied down."

Corina nodded agreement.  "That sounds most reasonable.  We do both
need time to integrate the . . . new experiences.  I would say you in
particular; I at least knew of the possibility, though I never thought
it would happen to me."

Medart chuckled.  "Don't be too sure who needs it more.  I've been
through something similar--you studied the Sandeman Annexation, of

"Of course," Corina agreed, puzzled.

"I needed to learn as much as I could about them, as quickly as
possible, and Gaelan DarShona, who had sworn personal fealty to Baron
Klaes, agreed to a mind-probe.  You know about those?"

"I have heard of them," Corina said.  "An artificial form of telepathy
the Order considers repugnant."

"Close enough.  At any rate, I had Gaelan given a deep, full-experience
probe, with myself hooked up as the receiver.  So I've already `been'
one other person.  You haven't."

"That may indeed make a difference," Corina agreed.  "I wonder if I
will experience that part, or if it was bypassed as unnecessary."

"I imagine you'll find out.  If you do, I'm sure you'll find it both
interesting and different.  For now, though, let's go eat."

Corina followed him to the shuttle, conscientiously trying not to think
about the rapport, but with only moderate success.  It was less the
contents of the transfer that concerned her, than the reason for it.
Her undermind must be trying to tell her something, but what?  And
. . . did she really want to know?

The shuttle, at Medart's instructions, took them to Mess Three.  "With
Sunbeam assigned to you, she's probably staying on the day-shift
schedule, so she'd be going to eat about now.  She should be able to
keep our minds off anything too serious, as long as we don't start
talking shop."

"Do you eat there often?" Corina asked, glad of the change of subject.

"Fairly often," Medart replied.  "I like the relaxed atmosphere, even
if it is a bit on the noisy side occasionally.  It was stiff the first
few times, right after I took over Chang, until they adapted.  It
wouldn't be quite acceptable for me to join in the horseplay, but
nobody minds as long as I just watch and listen."

Sunbeam was indeed in the mess, standing at the row of autochefs with
Major Dawson.  Medart and Corina got in line behind them and, when
Sunbeam turned around, were invited to join the pair.  They agreed; it
was, after all, what they had hoped for.  Corina decided on hellbeast
steak again; it was becoming one of her staples, since Sunbeam had
introduced her to it.  Besides that, she ordered two things she hadn't
yet tried--a taco and tapioca pudding--and her usual milk.

Medart looked at her tray.  "That's quite an assortment you've got
there.  What're you trying to do, sample everything on board?"

"Not quite, though I am trying a number of things.  It appears I will
be aboard for some time, and I prefer variety.  The tastes are strange,
but some are quite good."

They were carrying their orders to the table when Medart noticed
something seemed to be missing.  "No coffee?"

Corina shook her head.  "No.  I cannot understand how you can drink
something so corrosive, much less appear to enjoy it."

"It's an acquired taste," the Ranger agreed.  They sat down as he
continued, "But the Navy seems to run on it, and I'll admit to drinking
more than I should."

"Drink what?" Sunbeam asked, having missed the first part of the

"Coffee," Medart replied.  "Sir Corina thinks we're crazy to drink it."

Sunbeam giggled.  "If she thinks coffee's bad, she should try tea!"

"I did!" Corina said emphatically, trying to imitate Sunbeam's gaiety.
"The things you humans ingest and claim to enjoy, it is a wonder that
you survive at all."

"It's not that bad," Sunbeam said, still amazing Corina with her
ability to eat and talk simultaneously--and neatly.  "You remember
Major Dawson, don't you, Sir Corina?  His name's Pat; we got to talking
while you were hassling with Colonel Greggson.  He's going to coach me
in unarmed combat--he's the ship's men's champion, since Lieutenant
DarLeras says it wouldn't be proper for him to compete with
non-warriors--and he thinks I may have a chance at the women's
championship next month."

"You must be quite good, then," Corina said.

"What hassle with Greggson?" Medart demanded.

"It was nothing serious," Corina said, and summarized the incident for
him.  "I was nervous, but not badly upset."

"That's good," Medart said, then continued silently.  *Maybe it doesn't
bother you, but it does me.  I'll let it go for now, since His
Majesty's already warned him and I have a feeling we may need his
shield, but if he tries anything else, I want to know about it right

Corina was impressed by his seriousness.  *Yes, Ranger.*

The spoken conversation continued on a light tone, with Sunbeam as
usual carrying most of it.  Corina was almost silent, content merely to
absorb the alien atmosphere and continue accustoming herself to it.
She felt occasional twinges of familiarity which she knew must come
from the Medart-pattern that was becoming a part of her mind.  Most of
the integration, of course, would be done by her undermind while she
slept that night--but she could feel it beginning already.

      *      *      *      *      *

As she had known it would be, Corina's sleep that night was restless,
disturbed by her undermind's attempt to fit those alien memories into a
pattern that would allow her to grasp and use them.  She might never
fully understand them, but when the process was complete, she would
have more feeling for humans than was possible for an Irschchan who
hadn't experienced pattern rapport with one.

The integration process worked mostly in the form of dreams, some
fragmentary, some less so.  She/Jim was laying in a bed with bars, a
huge pink face framed in white looking down at her/him and radiating a
feeling of peace.

Then Corina-as-Jim was sitting beside a wicker basket, stroking a
Siamese cat who was giving birth to her first litter of kittens and
wouldn't let him leave.  There were three already, tiny white-furred
things blindly nursing.  The mother stared up at him, butting his hand
with her head, and purred as only a Siamese could, seeming to be proud
of her accomplishment.

A nude swim in a warm blue sea--the memory a pleasant one for the
human, but one that made Corina's sleeping body tremble with distaste.

But it was Jim's invitation to the Rangers that claimed most of her
attention, from Perry appearing in his room after the Test Week results
were posted, through his first meeting with the Emperor soon after--it
had been Yasunon then, not Davis, who was still Crown Prince--to his
brief visit home before starting his new duties.

For details of Medart's invitation, see SELECT

Working with other Rangers, then alone: the massive flood that almost
wiped out the Yonar colony, and proved to be sabotage.  Taking over the
Chang when Rick was elected Successor, and renewing his acquaintance
with Dave when Captain Hobison took command.  The Ondrian affair, with
his new friend Star-flower playing a large part, and a wry thought that
he kept getting involved with cats in one form or another.

The crisis in Sector Five when Sandeman erupted, conquering half that
Sector before its Duke realized she couldn't handle them and called for
Imperial help.  The mind-probe of Gaelan, giving her a new insight into
the small warriors, and added respect for their integrity and ability.
Glimpses of many planets, from space and surface.  That one spotting of
a huge white ship that disappeared into hyperspace and couldn't be

The memory of his sorrow at Yasunon's death was enough to make Corina
toss restlessly in bed.  She seemed to see the funeral from two
viewpoints at once: her own, the film in history class, and Jim's being
there.  Then came the Conclave that elected Forrest as Crown Prince
when Davis became Emperor.

Then war struck.  Fragmentary memories of battle flickered by, then
came a chance to capture a Traiti ship.  Ray Kennard had come up with
an idea that might keep imprisoned Traiti alive, at least long enough
to be questioned before they succumbed to the prisoner psychosis that
so inevitably killed the ones who could be kept from suicide.

He'd gone with the boarding party despite Hobison's objections.  He'd
seen his first live Traiti then, with its leathery gray skin and
sharklike face.  Not attractive at all to Medart's way of thinking--
then--but the big male was hurt and in obvious pain; he'd knelt,
intending to help, only to be torn almost in two by the Traiti's claws
and teeth.

And, he found out when he was allowed to regain consciousness after
that week of immersion in rapid-heal, it had been for nothing.  The two
prisoners the boarding party did manage to take had lived to reach
Terra before the psychosis set in, no longer.

It was a memory that reeked of failure and self-accusation.  He
should've expected that trick; although it wasn't common, it was known.
His carelessness and stupidity could have cost them the ship, cost the
Empire a Ranger it could ill afford to lose, wasted even more lives.

Corina shifted, unable to accept that even in a dream.  He was a
Ranger, he had been doing the only thing honor would allow . . .

Then came the interrupted recovery leave on Irschcha, and his meeting
with the young Losinj.  In Medart's memory, Corina watched herself
defeat the Marines, studied her own records, discussed them with the
Emperor.  Again came the invitation to join the Rangers, but from his
side this time, and the intensity of his emotion was enough to bring
her awake shivering.

She rose and automatically went through her morning routine, then went
to the service panel and got a glass of milk.  She sat at the desk,
then, taking occasional sips and thinking.  Did she still have a
choice, or did the Empire's need of her make this a matter of honor?
Jim--no, Ranger Medart, though it was now difficult to think of him
that way--would, she knew, leave that question to her.  And she was
terribly afraid she knew how she would eventually have to answer.


Medart's night was equally disturbed, though since Corina was younger
and had had a more peaceful life, his dreams were less troubling.

He saw/was Corina, about seven years old Standard, receiving her
soul-blade from an elderly Order initiate in a ritual as old as the
Order itself. He was impressing her mind pattern on the blade with a
specialized form of darlas, and her acceptance of it would signify
technical adulthood, though she would stay with her parents for some
time yet.  The dagger, ideally, should never leave her while she lived,
and now he felt the reason as well as knowing it.  The pattern-imprinting
made the blade literally a part of her.

Scattered memory-bits of school and family, nothing particularly
significant until her discovery of her Talent, accidentally made while
she was basking in the sun beside her favorite fountain.  Although
she'd said it had been weeks before she'd learned to read thoughts not
specifically directed at her, Medart realized that she must have been
subconsciously blocking them, because that was how she'd made her
accidental discovery.

For details of Corina's discovery, see TALENT

Medart shifted his position in bed, her memory-feelings enough to push
him out of that dream but not waken him.  He soon slid into another
one, rather patchy at first.  Her first meeting with Thark, High Adept
of the White Order, who was impressed and pleased by a Talent she
wasn't sure she was happy to have since it had cost her the future she
dreamed of.  There were later memories of them together; after she had
forced her regret into the background, they had developed a profound
regard and respect for each other, though much of it was hidden by
their formal teacher-student relationship.

Then came their breakup, in full detail.  Medart experienced it all,
from the friendly greeting and Thark's comments on her ability, through
her discovery of the Crusade and her rejection of it, to their
declaration of mutual enmity.  Outwardly quiet though that had been, it
had enough of an emotional charge to awaken the Ranger.

A glance at his chrono showed 0405.  Too late, the way he felt, to go
back to sleep, so he rose, showered, and dressed.  Then he sent a
tentative inquiry.  *You awake?*

*Yes.*  Hopefully, *Would you care to join me?*

*You bet.  I'll be right there.*

He was soon seated in one of the armchairs in her cabin, balancing a
steaming cup of coffee on its arm.  Corina still sat at the desk,
sipping at her second glass of milk.

"That was quite an experience," Medart finally said.  "Especially  that
last meeting with Thark."

"And your feelings when His Majesty pinned your badge on.  It is
strange, is it not, how a small piece of metal can mean so much?"

She was skirting the subject, and both knew it, but Medart went along.
Patience now, he felt, would pay off later.

"There's an ancient Terran proverb," he said, "that clothes make the
man.  It isn't literally true, of course, and the badge certainly
doesn't have any intrinsic power, but humans are very strongly affected
by symbols.  This one," he tapped the badge on his chest, "can trace
its history back to before the Empire, even back before atomic energy.
It's meant official authority in one form or another since at least the
second century pre-atomic, and for centuries before that--maybe
longer--it was believed to be a particularly powerful magical symbol."

Corina nodded, appreciating his intent as well as his explanation.  "I
think I understand, though clothes are relatively new to us, and
symbols of that sort affect us far less strongly."  She smoothed her
kilt.  "What you wear affects the way others act toward you, but does
it not also affect your own feelings?"

Medart nodded, but remained silent as he sensed her growing

"That, then, is why you and the others wish me to face Thark as a
Ranger.  The added psychological advantage."

"Yes, partly," Medart said.  "You do have the ability--compare yourself
to me when I was tapped, if you still have doubts--and the uniform and
badge will give you the extra edge of confidence you need to use that
ability fully.  The other part is the way seeing you as a Ranger will
affect Thark, since his main grievance--aside from our supposed lack of
Talent--is the real lack of high-ranking Irschschan Imperial officers."

"The second is certainly true.  The first . . ."  Corina fell silent,
retracing her borrowed memories to Medart's first meeting with Perry.
She ignored the surface this time through, digging for the deeper
memories, and those confirmed Medart's words.  Their specific abilities
differed, but the general level was approximately the same.  And
despite mistakes he thought of as idiotic--she winced at the recurring
thought of that Traiti deception--he had done well.

"None of us is perfect," he said mildly.  "We're mortals, not gods, and
we've all made mistakes."

"Yes, I see that," she said at last.  "Your memories are most
convincing."  She paused, took a deep breath, then nodded.  "Very well,
Ranger Medart.  I accept the burden."

Medart seemed to relax all over, though he hadn't seemed particularly
tense.  "As Arlene said, none of us asked for this job.  Anyone who did
would be the sort we wouldn't want.  And it does have compensations,
you know, both social and financial; you'll learn about those as you
go.  And remember we're not the only ones with a lot of confidence in
your ability; Thark knew you could handle being a member of the Prime
Chapter, though he had his aims for you set too low.  Okay, let's make
it official.  Emperor Chang?"

"Yes, Ranger Medart?"

"Formal voiceprint confirmation for Empire Net ident and security
input. This is Ranger James Kieran Medart, ident code RJT-6743-5197."

There was a brief pause, then the ship-comp said, "Voiceprint
confirmed. Awaiting input."

"Change ident code ISCCJ-1643-2048 to RCJ-1643-2048.  Delete all
security restrictions from the individual identified by that code, and
relay to any peripherals that Corina Losinj of Irschcha has been
selected as a Ranger."

"Acknowledged.  Request formal voiceprint from Ranger Losinj."

Medart nodded to Corina, smiling.  "Go ahead, Rina."

Corina glanced at him, then decided she liked both the nickname and his
use of it.  "Thank you, Jim.  Empire Net, this is Ranger Corina Losinj,
ident code RCJ-1643-2048."

"Thank you, Rangers.  Is there anything else?"

"No," Medart said, then looked at Corina, smiling.  "Welcome to
Imperial service, Ranger Losinj.  Now that the formalities are over,
you might want to get into uniform; we should call His Majesty with the
good news, then have breakfast."

"That would seem proper," Corina agreed, "though I would prefer
something other than your style.  A kilt is nice, with a cloak for bad
weather, and the sporran is useful--but I do not think I would be
comfortable with fitted garments all over, such as yours."

"Good point," Medart said.  "Since uniforms are supposed to be both
convenient and a form of easy identification, there's no reason you
shouldn't use a kilt the right shade of green; along with the badge, it
should serve the purpose.  And once we have time, you might want to
recommend similar uniform changes for the Irschchan members of other
Imperial services."

"Should we survive, I will do so."  Corina went into her sleeping area
and ordered a complete uniform, though with kilt instead of shirt and
trousers, from the fabricator.

"Thark?  There's him, of course," Medart called.  "But there's no point
in worrying about him right now.  Make your preparations, get
everything as ready as you can--then worry; it might let you find
something you've overlooked."

"I will try."  Corina shook her head, but Jim was right; she did tend
to concern herself with problems that never arose, and that did waste

Medart heard the fabricator's delivery bell ping, then sounds of
rustling cloth as Corina changed.  The pattern rapport had made a big
difference in her manner, he thought, and for the better.  She was much
more relaxed around him, even a little less formal.  And she seemed
more sure of herself, which would help.

Corina felt strange, changing out of her accustomed bright garb into
the functional, if in her opinion unnecessarily drab, forest green.
The fabricator had included an ankle-length cloak with heavy silver
embroidery and the Imperial Seal; she considered that for a moment,
settled it over her shoulders long enough to admire it in the mirror,
and removed it.  That was for formal ceremonies in which she used her
military rank and title, not for every day.  There was a visored hat,
as well, but she didn't try it on; such headgear did not take Irschchan
ear structure into account, so she planned to avoid wearing it.  And
possibly suggest another uniform change.

She stood holding the badge for a moment, still hesitating to take the
final step and pin it on.  It was only a small piece of platinum, a
star in a circle, but it meant almost total independence and authority,
subject only to the Sovereign, anywhere in Imperial space.  It was odd,
she thought, but this particular symbol affected her more than it
should.  Either Irschchans were more symbol-conscious than she had been
taught, or this was a side effect of pattern rapport with a human.

She told herself to get on with it.  She had accepted the job, why not
its symbol?  But it did not seem appropriate, after Jim's memories, to
pin it on herself--not the first time.  She returned to the living
area, held it out to Medart.  "Would you mind?"

"Not at all.  I'd be honored."  Medart took the badge and pinned it to
the holder the fabricator had provided on her equipment belt.

To Corina's surprise--and Medart's satisfaction--her emotions when he
did so were a duplicate of his fifty-seven years earlier.  Pride,
determination--and the confidence that others' belief in you could

*Yes,* Corina sent.  *I have heard of such boosts, but had never quite
believed in them.  It is strange . . . I had always thought myself
unaffected by others' opinions, but it is clear I was wrong.*

*Sometimes it depends on who the others are,* Medart replied.  *Someone
you don't care about can't have more than a surface impact, pro or con;
someone you do care about can have a disproportionate one.  This is the
wrong time for philosophy, though.  Is that knife the only weapon you
plan to carry? You might want to think about something with a little
more range.*

"I think not," Corina said aloud.  "I am not familiar with distance
weapons, since I am not a Sanctioner; my darlas should be adequate for
anyone I cannot reach physically--after this mission, at least."  She
indicated the weapon at his belt.  "Nor, I would say, am I the only one
to prefer unconventional weapons; that does not appear to be a

"It isn't," Medart said, drawing the weapon with a chuckle.  "It's just
as effective, though, maybe more so.  It's a replica of a Browning
Hi-Power 9mm automatic--a slugthrower.  I had it made not long after I
was tapped, and I have a standing order for fresh ammunition; it goes bad
after a few years, even under shipboard conditions.  It holds thirteen
rounds in the clip--" which slid out as he pressed the release button,
"and one in the chamber when I expect trouble.  I can always carry more
clips if I expect a lot of trouble."  He worked the action, then handed
her the empty weapon.

Corina examined it carefully.  It was too large for her hand, which she
expected because it seemed to fit Jim's perfectly.  She was impressed
by the precise workmanship, too; it made the gun, deadly as it was, a
thing of great beauty.

"Why a slugthrower instead of a blaster?" she asked curiously.

"Personal preference," Medart replied.  "For one thing, I happen to
like slugthrowers--and computers with keyboards, and paper books.  For
another, more practical reason, it has stopping power a blaster can't
match, and it's noisy.  A snap shot, if I'm surprised, will give me
time enough to get in a second, well-aimed round.  That's saved my life
a couple of times."

Corina handed it back, watched him reload and holster it.  "It seems to
be an excellent weapon, but I prefer to rely on my blade and darlas."

Medart shrugged.  "No arguing preference.  And it's about time we get
to work, so--"  He called the Comm Center, told them to set up a
scrambler call to the Emperor either at the Palace or aboard the
Empress Lindner.  "And have it put through to my quarters," he added.
Then he turned to Corina.  "We'll have to have your quarters rigged for
priority communications, but until the techs can get to it, you'll have
to use mine or go to Briefing Room One.  And my quarters are right next
door.  I'd also recommend a comm implant, but that can wait if you
don't want to spend a couple of hours in sick bay; a wrist-com will do
everything you need for now."

"A wrist-com, then, until we complete this mission."

      *      *      *      *      *

The screen was flickering blue even as they entered the human Ranger's
cabin, then it cleared to show a sleepy-looking Davis.  "Morning, Jim.
What's up?"

"Sorry to wake you, sir, but for a change it's good news.  We have
another Ranger."

Davis smiled.  "Losinj?  That's the kind of news I don't mind getting
out of bed for.  How did you manage to convince her?"

"I didn't, sir, at least not in any conventional way.  We had a
training accident."  Medart briefly described the pattern rapport and
memory exchange,   then went on, "I'm putting her in charge of this
mission and going on backup."

"Right," the Emperor said.  "That's what I'd do; Thark's her problem
anyway.  I'll pass on the good news to Rick and the others."  He turned
his attention to the young Irschchan.  "I'm glad to have you with us
all the way, Ranger Losinj."

"Thank you, sir."  Corina hadn't expected to be put in complete charge,
but she wasn't totally surprised; it was logical, given the
circumstances, and Jim's memories did indicate that Ranger training--
what there was of it--had a tendency to be rather abrupt.

"Before we get to serious planning," the Emperor said, "have you given
any thought to the arms you want?"

"Arms?  No, sir."  It was traditional, Corina knew, for a new Ranger to
use the arms of one who had died--but that tradition had not even
occurred to her.

"May I make a suggestion, then?"

"Of course, Your Majesty."

"I think Steve Tarlac's would be appropriate.  Hovan told me Clan
Ch'kara's Speaker for the Lords said our next Ranger would be his
spiritual heir--and now that we've found you, that seems reasonable."

Corina bowed.  "I would be honored to bear the Peacelord's arms, sir,
though I do not know if I can live up to his example."

"It won't be easy, but then neither are any of our jobs."  Davis grew
sober.  "Back to our present situation.  So you can plan, Rick and I
are in space now, as you suggested, outside Sol System.  Only the
ship's captain and navigator know our location.  I've ordered the
defense satellites not to fire on any Irschchan ships.  Since you're
sure Thark will be leading the attack, we'll be using Jim's plan: I
want Thark to land and take action against the Palace itself, and to
prevent unnecessary damage, I'm making it as easy for him as I can.  As
a ruling noble, he'll have no trouble getting through the Complex's
weather dome, and he'll find the Palace's security screen has somehow
been left off.  The Guards have orders not to fire until he takes
hostile action."

"I understand, sir.  I may not be able to take him alive for a
Tribunal, though.  I may not be able to take him at all."

"It's not necessary to take him alive," Davis replied after a moment's
thought.  "A Tribunal isn't essential, it's the evidence that is.  If
you can't take him at all--"  He was silent for a moment, then said,
"All right. How long will it take if you can handle him?"

"Less than half an hour, certainly; probably no more than fifteen

"Considering the size of the Palace," Davis pointed out, "it could take
you longer than that just to find him."  He thought for a moment.
"Signal Defsat Five when you land.  They'll have their orders, and if
they don't receive a second signal from you within an hour, they'll
blast the Palace and everything for ten kilometers around it.  I don't
want that to happen--it'd mean losing four Rangers, as well as a couple
of hundred thousand people, and probably destroy the Complex--but even
that is better than a rebellion that would cost millions or billions of
lives throughout the Empire."

"I will do my best to avoid that, Your Majesty."

"I know you will," Davis said.  "Still, for the first time, I'm
grateful that politics forced Chang to have the Palace built in
Antarctica.  A strike like that almost anywhere else would kill a hell
of a lot more people."

"Yes, sir."

"Don't hesitate to call me if you have to.  But unless there's anything
else, I'll sign off now and let you get back to work."

"I have nothing more, sir," Corina answered, and the screen went blue
momentarily before it shut off.

She was unfamiliar with Terran geography, but everyone knew about the
fabulous Imperial Palace.  Isolated in the heart of a frozen continent,
it was the center of the Palace Complex, a hundred-kilometer-diameter
circle of parklike city.  She didn't understand the physics of the
modified defense screen that allowed it to exist in spite of
Antarctica's climate, but the politics Davis had mentioned were clear

The Solar Federation's capital had been in Ceres, but when Nannstein's
discovery of hyperdrive had triggered the necessary change from
Federation to Empire, that had been abandoned.  The Empire needed a
center on Terra itself as a symbol of unity, yet squabbling about its
location among the planetary powers had made that unity a mockery until
Emperor Chang stepped in.

It was his decision that, since the Empire was not concerned with local
politics--it couldn't be and still govern the Empire as a whole
properly--the Palace would not be located on any individual nation's
territory.  That made Antarctica the only possible place.  Covered by
multinational treaties and with no permanent inhabitants, it had no
national identity.

And she would be going there, going to the Palace itself . . . as a
Ranger.  What would her parents think?  Corina hoped they would be

Medart interrupted her musing.  "How about breakfast?  I don't know
about you, but I'm hungry."

"So am I," Corina agreed.  "And we have plans to make."

"Correction," Medart said.  "You have plans to make.  All I'm going to
do is listen and critique."

They took an intraship shuttle to Mess One, intended for senior
officers and at this hour quite empty, unlike the always-busy Mess
Three.  They got their meals and ate silently while Corina decided on
her plans.

"The first thing, I think," she finally said, "is to find anyone else
aboard with mind shields, to make a combat group.  I have met
surprisingly many--four out of perhaps three hundred--yet five of us
will accomplish little against Thark and the Seniors of the Prime

"Right," Medart agreed, "since unshielded ones wouldn't last long.  Who
else have you found?"

"Besides yourself, there is Colonel Greggson, as you know from the
conference.  Also Captain Hobison, and the small Marine from the
demonstration, Lieutenant DarLeras."

"That one somehow doesn't surprise me," Medart commented.

Corina purred briefly.  "He is the first Sandeman warrior I have met,
but from my reading and your memories of the warrior Gaelan, I am also
not surprised.  An enthusiastic fighter, of course, and even shielded,
I sense great potential in him."

"He's got that, all right," Medart agreed.  "First in last summer's
graduating class at the Academy in the Complex, and if he'd fit the
psych profile better, he would've been approached about the Rangers.
But he can't help thinking of combat as a preferred option rather than
a last resort." Medart paused.  "It might interest you, and supports
your theory, that Captain Hobison was asked.  He refused, but that
doesn't change his abilities."

"Four out of the first five either Rangers or Ranger-level," Corina
said thoughtfully.  "Colonel Greggson is not?"

"What do you think?  No--too inflexible, not enough regard for others,
too narrow an orientation.  He's at the top of his field or he wouldn't
be on an IBC, but he's definitely not Ranger material.  Go on."

"Once we have found any shielded people, we must develop your Talent,
in particular your shield and darlas.  You do have the ability, but it
will be of little use without better control than you have yet
achieved.  And greater power, as well.  Admittedly, you did knock me
out yesterday; that, however, was in part because I had partially
lowered my own shield, trying to feel any trace of your darlas.  That
is one mistake I do not plan to repeat."

"I should hope not!" Medart said emphatically.  "You gave me quite a
scare, and I'd rather not `be' any more people than I have to."

"It is imperative that we find out about the aspect of your Talent I
have, for lack of a better term, called reverse darlas.  A thing not
understood may be a help or a hindrance.  We must discover which this
is, and if it is a help, how best to use it."

"Yeah, and if it's a hindrance, how not to use it.  What about timing?"

"I am concerned about that," Corina admitted.  "I hope to have the week
to ten days you need for even minimal training, but I must plan on
less.  I am almost positive of another four days, though, which will

"So what are you going to do with the ship in the meantime?  Our Terra
ETA is 0330 tomorrow.  Chang's too big to land, and we'd be pretty
conspicuous in orbit."

"Urrr."  Corina hadn't thought about that.  "Does that system not have
a band of debris?  Between the fourth and fifth planets, I believe."

Medart nodded.  "The asteroid belt."

"Then instead of going into orbit, we stay there.  I will give the
defense satellites instructions to call us when Thark lands.  The delay
between our getting that message and our arrival in orbit, plus the
time to land, should take perhaps twenty minutes, from the theory I
remember.  That will allow him to attack the Palace and provide the
evidence His Majesty wishes."

"You're assuming Chang's navigator can plot that short a hyperspace
flight with a lot of precision."

"Yes.  I believe it a valid assumption, or he would not be conning a
Ranger's chosen ship."

"Logical reasoning, and very true.  All three of our navigators are
every bit that exact.  It sounds good; now we just hope it works.  One
of our ancient poets wrote, `The best laid plans of mice and men gang
aft a-gley,' and he was right."

"That was Robert Burns," Corina said.  "One of your early scientists
put the same idea another way: `Anything that can go wrong will go
wrong.'"  She felt Medart's surprise at the identification and quote.
"I was not probing; Terran poetry interests me, particularly Burns,
Service, and Kipling.  Except for ancient war chants, Irschcha has
little that can be called poetry."

"Nice to know you have interests that don't show up on your records,"
Medart said.

"What do you mean?"

"As I said earlier, it's not so much what you know as how your mind
works that counts, as long as you have the basics.  You can always find
out any facts you need.  But being interested in a variety of things is
essential; you never know what's going to come in handy.  Poetry
doesn't seem particularly promising, but on the other hand, as I said,
you never know."

The mess was starting to fill as the senior officers trickled in for
breakfast.  By the time the two Rangers finished eating, all but
Captain Hobison and Commander Jensen were there.

Until they stood to leave, nobody paid any particular attention to
Corina; it wasn't surprising that Medart's special assistant should
join him at a meal.  When they did stand, however, Commander Pappas
gave an exclamation of surprise, and the room grew silent.  That didn't
last long; the murmur of conversation resumed, but now, from what
Corina could hear, with herself as the subject.  The tone was more awed
than surprised after that first exclamation, and Corina assumed that
word of the previous day's war council was no longer restricted to the
Command Crew.

Jim must have picked that up, she thought, or possibly he was just
anticipating her reaction.  "It's impossible to keep rumors from
circulating aboard ship," he said, "especially about something as rare
as a potential Ranger.  The word was probably all over Chang within
fifteen minutes after His Majesty dismissed the Command Crew.  There's
no harm in it."

They entered a shuttle, and Medart ordered it to the Bridge.  "We'll
meet Captain Hobison there, so he'll get the news directly, not
second-hand. He normally has breakfast in his cabin, and goes straight
to the Bridge."

Corina nodded.  "And I must tell him my plans, as well.  But what about
those rumors?  What if I had continued to refuse?"

"You're starting to sound like Sunbeam," Medart laughed.  "The rumors
would have tapered off eventually, after giving the crew something a
bit different to talk about for awhile."

The shuttle slowed to a stop, its door sliding open.  The Bridge, as
the ship's nerve center, was of course always fully crewed; Chief
Engineer Jensen, on duty as Senior Officer of the Watch, was seated in
the Command chair.  He swung the chair around to face them as they
entered, saying, "You're early, Cap--  Huh?"  He stood and saluted, his
exclamation attracting the attention of the rest of the Bridge crew.
They also started to stand.

"As you were," Medart said, returning Jensen's salute.  The Bridge
returned to near-normal, though with more than the usual amount of
non-duty conversation.

Corina saw Jensen's hand move toward the chair's comm controls, and
spoke.  "No, Commander.  There is no need to disturb Captain Hobison; I
understand he will be here shortly."

"Uh, yes, sir."

They waited in silence, both Rangers moving to stand at the left of the
Command chair.  The shuttle door finally slid open again and Hobison
emerged. He raised one eyebrow in surprise at the sight of Corina's
badge, but went through the routine of relieving Jensen before he said
anything.  Change of watch completed, he seated himself in the Command
chair and turned to face the pair.  "He talked you into it, did he,
Ranger Losinj?"  The words were neutral, but the tone was warm.
"Knowing Rangers, I suppose he's put you in charge of this mission."

"Yes, Captain, to both.  I would like to tell you my plans as soon as
you have the time."

"I've got it now, Ranger.  Here or in the briefing room?"

"It might as well be here.  The whole crew will need to know."  Corina
braced herself mentally.  This was real; she was giving orders to the
Captain of an Imperial Battle Cruiser, certain they would be obeyed.
"When we arrive in the Terran system, take station in the asteroid
belt.  Then call Defense Satellite Five and have them inform us of any
Irschschan ship landing near the Palace.  When you receive that word,
start for Terra and call me.  As soon as you have Chang in orbit,
Ranger Medart and I, along with any crew members who have mind shields
and are willing to volunteer, will take a lander down and attempt to
take Thark in the act of invading the Palace."

"After your demonstration," Hobison said, "I can understand why you
want people with mind shields, but everyone aboard this ship is already
a volunteer.  You don't need to ask them again."

"I realize that, Captain, but in this case I would prefer to.  Defsat
Five has orders to blast the Palace and its immediate surroundings
unless I can defeat Thark within an hour of our landing.  As I told
Ranger Medart, the assault team will have at best a twenty percent
chance of survival."

Hobison nodded.  "Right.  Am I shielded?"


"Then you have one volunteer.  Anyone else in the Command Crew

"There is Colonel Greggson.  Only one of the others I have scanned so
far has a usable shield, and I plan to speak to him shortly.  That is
why the whole crew must be informed of those facts.  Ranger Medart and
I will have to check everyone.  Be sure to emphasize, please, that we
will be checking only for shields; their private lives will remain
their own."

"Jim?"  Hobison looked startled.  "What's this all about?  You mean
you've got Talent like hers?"

"Uh-huh."  Medart was purposely informal, trying to ease Hobison's
obvious shock.  "You'd already left when I told His Majesty.  There's
no sense in trying to keep it a secret; she's trained me to be as good
a telepath as she is, and she's teaching me darlas.  I'll need
volunteers, too, to practice on.  They'll be in no danger, since she'll
be monitoring everything I do until she's satisfied with my control."

"I'll make the announcement," Hobison said after a few moments'
silence.  "But I was definitely right--captaining a Ranger's ship is
anything but boring."

"The same goes for being a Ranger," Medart said, smiling.

"I've noticed.  I'll get on it right away.  Where do you want to

"Sherwood Forest," Corina decided, "then work our way south.  I can
sense the presence of shields with a shipwide scan, but not the precise
strength, location, or most important, who is shielded."  Then she
corrected herself.  "No, that is not precisely correct.  If I already
know the person, I can tell identity from the shield pattern, but even
then, not the location. The `finding' aspect of my Talent,
unfortunately, is limited to inanimate objects."

She turned to Medart.  "We had best start now.  Our time is limited."


In the shuttle heading for Sherwood Forest, Medart said, "I agree that
speed's important, so why not split up?  We could cover the ship faster
that way."

"I do not think that would be wise, Jim."  Corina was a little
uncomfortable with such familiarity, even in private and with the
knowledge from his memory that it was now proper for her, but she felt
she ought to accustom herself to it.  "You cannot test a shield's
strength without using darlas, and you do not yet have the control to
do that safely."  Getting brave, she chided herself.  Making
suggestions to the Emperor, giving orders to a battle cruiser's
captain, and now telling a Ranger--a fellow Ranger, she reminded
herself--there was a thing he could not do.

Medart sensed her feelings and smiled to himself.  Yeah, she had the
adaptability, all right.  She'd definitely gained confidence since the
pattern rapport, which was good, and she was already showing the
self-possession it had taken him over a month to achieve, maybe from his
memories.  That, he thought, was even better; she'd need every edge she
could get.  "I can't argue," he said.  "I certainly don't want a repeat
of the accident with you."

"Nor do I.  If you were to overestimate a shield's strength, or
visualize too clearly, you could easily injure or kill its possessor.
You will test them, yes, but only when I am standing by to protect

"That sounds reasonable."

They reached the ship's park a couple of minutes later, and encountered
several crewmembers as they walked through it.  None, unfortunately,
had any trace of shield, which disappointed both Rangers.  But Corina,
despite her misgivings about the mission she'd assumed, found the
forest eased her tension.  She breathed deeply, savoring the smell of
growing things--and startled herself with a sneeze.  That was odd, she
thought; she knew of no allergies.  Perhaps it was the change of

The forest's calming effect didn't last.  Much as she liked such
surroundings, she couldn't avoid the knowledge that it might be her
last time to enjoy them.  She kept that thought carefully shielded from
the other Ranger; it wouldn't help for him to know just how much she
dreaded the coming encounter with Thark, or her certainty that it would
mean both their deaths.

Medart felt the shield and wondered at it, but decided to remain
silent. She must have a reason for concealing whatever it was, he was
certain, and although that pattern rapport had made them in some ways
closer than any married couple, she did deserve her privacy.  If she
felt like sharing this later, she would.

He thought of a safe subject.  "It almost slipped my mind, Rina.
You're entitled to an aide if you want one; what about it?"

Corina turned to him in surprise.  "What would I need an aide for?"

"To run errands for you, make appointments, take care of anything you
don't want to or can't do yourself."

"I do not think I wish one.  You seem to have no such need, and it
appears to be a waste of a person who could accomplish more useful
things elsewhere."

Medart nodded.  "I've never used one for just those reasons.  When we
run into Sunbeam, then, I'll tell her she can go back to her regular

"That will disappoint her, but she is much too able to be what I gather
is no more than a personal servant."

"Right.  Well, we don't seem to be finding too much here; let's go on."

The two worked their way through the next several decks with equal lack
of result.  There were a few screens here and there, but they found
nothing approaching the strength of a true shield, and Medart was

Corina sensed beginning discouragement, and hastened to reassure him.
"Jim, we already know that Talent is even rarer among humans than it is
among Irschchans.  We have encouraged and developed it for millennia,
and even to a certain extent bred for it.  Humans have not, so I am
surprised to have found so many with even as limited a Talent as
shields.  This ship has a crew of approximately two thousand, does it

"Just about.  And no passengers this trip."

"Then assuming even half as many humans--in this picked group; the true
number, from Thark's experience, is far less--as Irschchans are at all
Talented, an assumption he would not credit, we can expect to find at
most ten, in addition to the ones we already have.  Fewer would not
surprise me."

"And there are how many in the Prime Chapter?"

"Nine.  The most dangerous are Thark, who is my problem, then Senior
Adepts Valla and Kainor, who I am afraid will be yours and perhaps
Colonel Greggson's, if his shield is as strong as I first thought."

"We should have some element of surprise with shields, shouldn't we?
From what you said, they won't be expecting even that much."

"True, but even shields will give only a temporary advantage.  They
will adapt quickly, and they are powerful.  You will have to use the
few seconds the shields give you to stun or kill them.  I will be no
help there; Thark will be keeping me fully occupied.  And I am sure
there will be Sanctioners to deal with, as well as the Seniors."

"Yeah.  Well, if we're going to have any chance at all, we'd better
find ourselves that assault group.  And it could take days, at this
rate; this is a damn big ship."  He thought for a moment.  "You did say
you can sense the presence of a shield.  Isn't there any way you can
use that to speed this up, find them all today?"

"There is one way," Corina admitted, "but I dislike using it.  I could
find shielded minds, then direct you to a nearby unscreened one to
determine location.  That, however, involves probing many who lack

"And I know how you feel about that.  But you can't be absolutely sure
you've guessed Thark's timing right, can you?"

Corina shook her head.  "No, I cannot.  You are correct, the necessity
for speed is more important than my reluctance.  Very well, but go no
deeper than you must to determine location."


No longer interested in a physical search, the two Rangers found an
unoccupied passenger lounge and began the mental one.  With Corina's
Talent and Medart's knowledge of the ship, it went quickly; they found
eleven, besides the known three, with enough shield to be worth further
testing. Hobison's, they already knew, was adequate, and Corina was
less than enthusiastic about meeting Greggson again, so they decided to
check with the young Sandeman first.  His shield was strong, she knew
from the demonstration, and she knew his pattern from the combat
demonstration, which made it a simple matter to touch him, find someone
nearby, and let Medart identify his location.  "Zero-gee gym," the
human Ranger said.  "I think you're going to like what you see."

When they reached the mid-level observation platform glassed off from
the gym itself, Corina had to agree.  Nevan was practicing
flight-shooting, clad only in exercise trunks that set off his dark skin.
Small and slender he might be, but there was no denying his strength or
his grace as he pushed himself off one gym wall, drew his bow in a
single smooth motion, and fired as he tumbled through the air.

"Beautiful," Corina said.  "I have never seen a human move with such
economy or precision.  That is a combat bow, is it not?"

"Instead of a practice one?  Right--no target sights, and it's a lot
heavier.  That one pulls close to seventy kilos.  I can't even get the
string back ten centis, and he makes it look like nothing."

Nevan hit the far wall feet-first.  There was the solid sound of him
kicking off again, the scream of a hollow pierced-shaft arrow, the thud
of it hitting the small remote-controlled target less than a centimeter
from the first.  That was repeated half a decade times, with what
appeared to be effortless ease.

"Does he ever miss?" Corina asked as the Sandeman continued to shoot.

"I've never heard of it happening, and I'm sure it'd be all over the
ship in less than an hour if he did."  Medart chuckled.  "He spends
half his free time in combat exercises of one sort or another, after
all, not just the minimums for on-duty training.  It's not as good as
combat, to their way of thinking, but it's better than what we standard
humans class as normal entertainment."

The two were silent then, for the couple of minutes it took Nevan to
run out of arrows and signal the target controller to end the session.
Then he dove for the floor, used a handhold to pull himself erect, and
switched off the gravity neutralizer that isolated the gym from the
ship's gravity field.

"Okay," Medart said.  "That's it; let's get down to the dressing room
and wait for him to get into uniform."

"You stressed the need for speed," Corina said as they left the
observation platform.  "Why do you not speak to him while he changes?
I cannot, I know; having a female around would embarrass a human male."

"Or vice versa."  Medart grinned.  "And Sandemans are even worse than
most that way.  They don't even like to strip for a medical exam--which
they hate in the first place.  I'd embarrass him every bit as much as
you would.  I was worried about wasting days; we can spare a few

"I do not understand, but I would not wish to offend him.  We do want
his assistance."

Medart chuckled.  "Don't worry, you'll get it.  Just look at Gaelan's
memories if you think there's any chance of a Sandeman warrior passing
up any kind of honorable combat."

Corina did, and found herself amused at her doubt.  "I see.  But he
should still have the opportunity to refuse, with the odds so greatly
against the assault team."

      *      *      *      *      *

It wasn't long before the dressing room door opened and Nevan emerged,
his blond hair still damp from the shower.  He'd caught a glimpse of
the two Rangers watching his practice, so he wasn't really too
surprised to find them waiting for him, but he was wondering what they
wanted with a young First Lieutenant fresh out of the Academy.  He came
to perfect Guidebook attention, waited.

"At ease, Lieutenant."  Corina purred briefly.  This one, she thought,
would truly be an asset.  "I must ask if you would be willing to
volunteer for a particularly hazardous mission, one from which it is
entirely possible no survivors will emerge."  She went on to explain
about his mental defenses and the opposition the assault team would
face.  She wished she could read his thoughts, but after the first
mention of fighting, she had no doubt of his answer; not even Marine
discipline could make him hold back a smile, and his eagerness was
evident in his steel-gray eyes.  "I believe that is everything," she
said at last.  "The choice is yours, and you may refuse without

For Nevan's opinion of this, see NEVAN

"No, sir.  I'm volunteering."

"Excellent.  I will call a briefing as soon as I have spoken to all
those who have shields of adequate strength, and so are eligible for
the assault team.  In the meantime you are relieved of normal duty;
relax, or do whatever you think best to prepare yourself."

"Yes, sir."  Nevan came to attention again, waiting.

*You'll have to dismiss him,* Medart sent.  *He's still Academy-stiff,
hasn't relaxed to Fleet standards yet.*

*Thank you.*  "Dismissed, Lieutenant."  Corina watched him leave,
purring softly in satisfaction that he, at least, was happy.  Then her
ears went back slightly, and she turned to Medart.  "I can no longer
put it off. We must speak to Colonel Greggson."

"I'll talk to him if you'd like, since he makes you uncomfortable."

"No, though I thank you for the offer.  I have accepted this job, I
will do what it requires.  I will speak to him."

"Right."  Good for her, Medart thought.  She'd apparently gotten more
from his memories than he'd realized; that sounded like something he'd
said once, back in the early days of his own career.  Or maybe they
were just a lot alike.

      *      *      *      *      *

Greggson, naturally, was in his office in the Security section.  He
stood and came to attention as the two Rangers entered, strictly by the
book though his expression was cold.  "Yes, sirs?"

Corina explained as she had to Nevan, seeing Greggson's expression
become thoughtful as he analyzed the problem.  It seemed Jim was right,
she thought.  This man was a professional, would do his job in spite of
his personal opinions.  And his shield was fractionally tighter than
Hobison's or Nevan's, though not up to Jim's partially-trained one.  "I
believe, Colonel," she finished, "that you would be most useful on the
team going after Thark, Valla, and Kainor, although that will mean
working directly with me.  Are you willing to do so?"

"Yes, sir."  Emotion was seeping through, despite his shield, and
Corina read two that conflicted strongly.  One was a passionate dislike
for her as an individual, but the other was more important to the
Marine: his duty to the Empire, which she as a Ranger had the right to

That fact overrode his personal feelings.  He would accompany the
assault team not because she asked it, but because of his own
conviction that it was part of his job as a Marine.  In a flash of
insight, Corina realized that Sunbeam had, perhaps without fully
realizing it, given her a very accurate capsule description.
Greggson's work was truly all he had: the Corps was his entire life,
nothing outside had any meaning whatsoever.  She found herself pitying
him as she and Medart left with his agreement, on the way to speak with
the rest of the shielded ones.

The group that finally came together in Briefing Room One shortly after
noon to form the assault team was an unlikely one, but the only one
that would have any chance at all.  In addition to those they'd first
spoken to, the Rangers had found a nurse, an engineer's assistant, the
ship's junior navigator, and four other Marine officers.

There was noticeable tension in the room when Corina called the
briefing to order.  They already knew the basic situation; she could go
directly to the assault itself.  "I will be making assignments based
solely on shield strength, as that is the only factor which will slow
the Seniors to any degree.  Ranger Medart, Colonel Greggson, and I will
attempt to trace and confront Thark and his two chief lieutenants.  I
would like the rest of you to spread throughout the Palace, to find and
eliminate as many of the others as you can.  We will remain in touch as
necessary by wrist communicators, which will be issued as soon as we
are finished here.

"I have ordered a disruptor mounted on the lander we will be using.
Lieutenant DarLeras, Ranger Medart tells me you are a pilot; since we
do not have such a specialist, I would like you to fill that position
as well as the combat one you agreed to earlier.  Will that cause you
any problem?"

"No, sir.  It just means I prep before we leave, rather than during the

Medart sent Corina a mental wince.  *Make sure your restraints are
tight.  He took it easy on the way up because it was your first trip;
he wouldn't be concerned about comfort on a combat flight even if he
weren't battleprepped.  Since he will be, we're going to have a rough

*He is still the only pilot we have, and it will be to our advantage
for him to be prepped.  He will have to take our limitations into
consideration, however.*

*He will, since that's good tactics, but that doesn't mean he'll be
gentle, especially if he has to do any dodging.  Go on.*

"Unfortunately, Prowler will have to be destroyed to prevent its
weapons from being used against us.  Since I expect the crew to remain
aboard, that means they will be killed.  The others, Seniors and
Sanctioners, will be in the Palace, and we must expect immediate
opposition when we land."

"What kind of armament does Prowler have?" Greggson asked.

"When I was last aboard, approximately a week ago, it had medium-power
blasters.  I believe its shields are standard for that class."

"Nothing a disruptor can't handle, then.  It'd take more than a week to
mount heavy weapons."

"He would depend more on speed and secrecy, even so," Corina said.  "He
wishes to take over; he will cause no more destruction than he must."

"What about personal weapons?" Nevan asked.

"The Seniors will depend on Talent.  Sanctioners, however, have only
limited Talent, as a rule just telepathy and shields, so they use and
are quite familiar with distance weapons.  Some have considerable
skill, and those are the ones likeliest to be in Thark's group."

Greggson frowned.  "No unTalented at all?  I'd hoped we could
supplement our few shielded people with a trained Security team, at

"I do not believe he would take that chance," Corina said.  "This is
far too important to him; his attack force will include only his best
people.  A Security team would have little chance against even a
Sanctioner's simple telepathy; no action can be taken without at least
a fraction of a second's forethought."

"Damn."  Greggson's voice was flat.  "That's out, then."

"Hold on," Hobison said.  "Emperor Chang?"

"Yes, Captain Hobison?"

"Identify Prowler, Irschchan registry, and give crew/passenger

"Prowler, Irschchan registry One-Alpha.  Kanchatka-class courier
refitted as a yacht, crew of nine plus pilot.  Maximum passenger
capacity thirty humans.  Further data?"

"Not required."  Hobison turned his attention back to the others in the
room.  "Thirty human passengers, so call it about forty-five
Irschchans.  And there are twelve of us . . . not very good odds at
all."  He paused, frowned.  "Worse, if the crew's Talented."

"They are not," Corina said.  "They are all Navy veterans; until
myself, Talented went into the Order instead as a matter of course.
However, since Prowler must be destroyed to prevent the use of its
weapons, I do not expect them to be a problem."

"Forty-five effectives, then," Hobison said.  "I've faced better odds;
looks like things could get interesting."

"We had best plan on forty-six," Corina corrected.  "Thark seldom uses
his assigned pilot; he prefers to do his own flying."  She laid her
ears back.  "There will be much death because of his Crusade; I would
prefer that we cause as little of it as possible.  Set your weapons for
a two-hour stun.  Under the circumstances, that should be quite
sufficient; by the end of that time, either Thark will be defeated, the
stunned ones still able to stand trial, or we will all be dead.  Are
there any questions?"

"I have one," Greggson said.  "You can sense shields at a distance, so
the Seniors can, too.  What's to stop them from killing us with darlas
as soon as they sense us?"

"Thark is the only one in the Prime Chapter, to the best of my
knowledge, who is able to use darlas effectively without visual

"You did it!"  Greggson's tone was accusing.

"I am aware of that," Corina said.  "I am surprised I was able to; I
made the attempt only because I had more opponents than I had ever
faced in training, and had nothing to lose by trying.  The others will
have to be able to see you before they can attack.  If we are
fortunate, your shields will all be strong enough to deflect such an
attack for the two or three seconds necessary to stun them.  And the
danger from the Sanctioners, who cannot use darlas at all, is purely

"That's encouraging," Nevan said.

Corina's ears twitched in appreciation of the attempt at humor.  "I am
glad you think so.  Are there other questions?"

When there were none, she dismissed the meeting, and the two Rangers
returned to Sherwood Forest to continue Medart's training.  Corina
began to think she must have an allergy after all, because she sneezed
several times as soon as they entered the park, but she refused
Medart's suggestion that they find a different location.  "This area is
most conducive to the proper frame of mind, especially for you.  That
is worth some minor irritation, and I see our tree is available; shall
we take advantage of it?"

When they were seated, Medart came straight to the point.  "The first
thing, I think, is to find out about what you called reverse darlas."

"As I said, that is not a precise description."  Corina's ears went
back in frustration.  "It is merely the best I can do in Imperial
English.  Or in Irschchan, for that matter."

"It's all we have to work with, though, so let's try to define it a bit
more closely.  I can't either practice or avoid something I can't

"That is true enough.  Very well, darlas is a form of attack.  Its
reverse would logically be some form of defense, yet that is not the
feeling I get.  And it would seem redundant, as well, since your shield
is a more than adequate defense, even now, against all but the
strongest conventional darlas."

"Let's go all the way to basics, then.  An attack is hostility, intent
to cause harm.  The reverse of that is good will, intent to help.  That
sound any more promising?"

"Urrr . . . yes, somewhat, though I have never heard of such an
application of Talent."

"Uh-huh, you said that."  Medart leaned back against the treetrunk.
"What you call Talent we call esper abilities, and if I remember right,
one of those was healing.  Emperor Chang?"

"Yes, Ranger Medart?"

"Scan records for healing as an aspect of ESP, report on verified

"Insufficient data to verify any given incident," the ship-comp
reported after several seconds.  "Most data are religious in origin,
rather than scientific.  Not subject to positive verification."

"Thank you.  No further information required."  Medart looked at the
smaller Ranger.  "Like telepathy was, until day before yesterday.
Stories, but none of what Greggson likes to call cast-iron facts."

Corina sneezed again, and Medart frowned.  "Sounds to me like you're
coming down with something, Rina.  Maybe you ought to go see Dr.
Sherman--you need to be in top shape when you go against Thark."

"That is true, and it is more than the sneezing; I woke with a slight
headache this morning, and I feel as if I have been exercising harder
than I should.  Your ship is warmer than I truly like, and I have been
under some strain; I attributed those symptoms to that.  It is
possible, however that I am becoming ill."  She paused, thinking.  "If
this aspect of your Talent is connected with health, perhaps you should
see what you can discover about my condition before I go to Dr.

"That sounds reasonable."  Medart closed his eyes to concentrate better
on sensing her.

Corina closed hers as well, dropping her shield completely to allow him
unrestricted access to her feelings.  His mental touch was gentle, even
soothing, and she felt aching start to ease.  Then there was a touch on
her forehead that felt like both his hands, warmer than normal human
body temperature, and all her symptoms faded to nothing in perhaps half
a minute.

When she opened her eyes, it was to see Medart looking at her with an
expression of pleased surprise.  "I feel considerably better, Jim, and
I thank you.  It appears your deduction was correct."

"You're welcome," Medart said, still grinning.  "And they said there'd
never be a cure for the common cold!  You were right too, Rina; the
change in environment when you came aboard gave some viruses the chance
they needed. You were in the early stages of a nasty respiratory

"An unpleasantness that would have hampered me rather badly."

"That's the understatement of the year!  Well, if you agree it won't be
too useful, maybe we'd better drop it and get on with the darlas and
shield training.  I can always go into medicine later, when we aren't
pushed for time."

"I must agree.  Healing will probably be most valuable, but it is
hardly something useful in combat.  Fortunately, it is also not a

      *      *      *      *      *

"No, Jim, no!  That was painful, too strong."  Corina shook her head,
half in reproof and half to clear her mind.  It was getting late, the
training session lasting well beyond what the Order considered
reasonable, but both wanted to keep going as long as possible.  Still,
Corina thought, his control was getting worse rather than better; they
should finish up soon, then eat and rest.  "That snake image is far too
powerful for a stun effect.  You must visualize something else.  And
you must also visualize with more consistency, as the power you exert
is directly proportional to the clarity of your image."

"I'm sorry, Rina," Medart apologized.  "You were right, though.  The
technique was easy, but the control damnsure isn't.  Do you think I'll
ever get the hang of it?"

"Of course you will," she replied.  "Remember, it took me four years to
reach my present degree of control, but I was being trained by the
traditional methods.  It took me a quarter of a year to achieve what
you have managed in two days, with this compressed training.  You
should be as pleased with your progress as I am, not discouraged."

"Three months, hmm?  Then I guess I don't feel so bad."

"That is good.  I only hope we have the four to eight days I estimated,
even as quickly as you are learning.  By then you should be able to
consistently come close to the effect you intend, and can begin working
with the volunteers."

"Yeah, me too.  I have a lot to learn."

"Do not let it worry you.  Despite my studies under Thark himself, I
still do not have the control I should.  Ideally I should be able to
stun someone for a given length of time, plus or minus not more than a
minute, regardless of the other's strength or mind pattern.  I am not
even close to that; plus or minus three minutes is the best I have been
able to manage."

"That sounds good to me!"

"It is not bad," Corina agreed, "but it is not what I am supposed to be
capable of.  That is always the goal, working up to your own

Medart nodded.  "I can understand that.  What next?"

"Next," Corina said, getting to her feet, "we eat and rest.  Those are
as important to your progress as the training itself."


Corina was awakened by the whooping of a siren, followed by a
surprisingly calm voice on the ship's annunciator.  "General Quarters--
All hands to battle stations.  General Quarters--man your battle
stations. Rangers Medart and Losinj, Palace assault team, to the hangar
bay, please."

Corina scrambled out of bed and into her kilt.  "Emperor Chang!"

The ship-comp's voice was unchanged.  "Yes, Ranger Losinj?"

"What time is it?  What is happening?"  The announcement left no doubt,
but she wanted details.

"It is 0230, sir.  The Prowler requested clearance for Sydney
Spaceport, but is on course for the Palace Complex instead.  Defsat
Five estimates their arrival there in fifteen minutes."

"Blades!"  Corina ignored the ship's "I beg your pardon, Ranger?", and
sent a hurried thought.  *Jim?*

*On my way.  We'll land about an hour and a quarter behind them.
Another hour to orbit, then fifteen minutes to the Palace.  Seems he
was closer to ready than you guessed.*

*Let us hope not disastrously so.*

*Right.  Anything you can do from this distance?*

*I do not think so, at least nothing useful.  Once we are aboard the
lander, however, I will attempt to read Thark; his shield will have to
be down for him to work, and he may be distracted enough not to notice
so light a touch.*

*If it's down, can't you hit him with darlas?  You don't need to be in
sight of him, from what you said.*

*I do not need to be in sight of someone without a shield,* she
returned.  *That is all I am sure of.  Should I attempt such an attack
on Thark, it may have some effect, or it may simply alert him to our
approach.  I think it would be wiser to do no more than observe, if
that is possible, and maintain the element of surprise.  You have far
more experience than I in such situations, however; I will defer to
your judgement.*

*I've got more experience in combat, less in Talent.  We go with your
judgement on this one.  See you in a second.*

It was a little longer than that, but less than a minute later the two
were in a shuttle going to the lander bay.  "No armor?" Medart asked.

"I do not know how to use it," Corina said.  "But you are not wearing
it either, and you must be familiar with its use.  Why not?"

"From your demonstration, there'd be no point.  Armor can protect
against blasters, but not against Talent--and it has a lot of places
where a touch of TK would be fatal.  If anyone wants to wear it I won't
argue, for the psychological help it can give, but I'm not going to
burden myself with it."

They were the last to arrive; since their quarters were closest to the
center of the ship, they had the furthest to come.  When they got to
the bay, most of the team was standing near the lander talking in low
tones, about half in armor, but Nevan was off to one side, kneeling
with upraised arms, chanting softly in a language she didn't recognize.
Her Gaelan-memories let her recognize what he was doing, however; he
was preparing for battle, inducing the psycho-physical conditioning
that made Sandeman warriors the most dangerous fighters in the Empire.

"If I am going to provide information about Thark," she said, "we had
best go aboard; it is almost time for him to land.  It should be safe
for you to link with me, if you wish to relay what is happening to the

"That might not be a bad idea," Medart said.

They entered the lander and Corina strapped herself into a seat--
tightly, remembering Medart's caution about Nevan's battleprepped
piloting--then she made herself relax, closing her eyes, and reached
tentatively for Thark's mind-pattern, ready to pull back at the first
hint that he detected her touch.

      *      *      *      *      *

They were nearing the Sentinel Mountains before Thark began slowing the
Prowler.  Yes, there it was: the circle of greenery and buildings
surrounding the single huge structure that was his goal.  The Imperial

The sight awed him, and he felt an instant of uncertainty.  Could those
responsible for such a tremendous feat of architecture be as
incompetent to rule as he thought?  It was too late for such doubts,
though.  They were through the weather screen, past the main Palace
spaceport, and there was no barrier to a closer approach; there was no
need to disable the Palace's defense screen.  As he had planned, Thark
set the Prowler down on the Emperor's private landing pad.  Everything
had gone smoothly so far, but now there was bound to be opposition.

And that lost no time showing up.  The Prowler's touchdown was the
signal Palace Guards had been waiting for; humans, Irschchans, and a
Traiti, all in Imperial Marine dress blues, ran toward the ship,
drawing and firing their sidearms.  They were no real threat; handguns
couldn't penetrate even a courier's shielding.  The heavy disruptor
cannon swinging to take aim at the little ship's main hatch was an
entirely different matter, though.  A small cannon of that type could
do serious damage, and one this size would simply separate ship and
contents into their component atoms.

But that was something Thark could handle.  He made a quick scan to
locate the weapon's operator and any backup, finding to his relief that
there was none.  A swift thrust of darlas, and the cannon was no longer
a threat, its operator dead.  It was the first death at Thark's own
hands . . . but it was not the only one for long.  The defending Palace
Guards began to drop as the Seniors used viewscreen images to pick and
focus on their targets.  Thark took the ones they couldn't see, the
ones hidden by Prowler's hull.

With the first wave of opposition dead, Thark opened the hatch,
extended the ramp, and led the Seniors and Sanctioners toward the pad's
entrance to the Palace.  They were almost there when more opposition
arrived, perhaps a dozen Palace Guards--followed seconds later by a man
in Ranger green.

There was no time to be neat; the Sanctioners used blasters, the
Seniors darlas and soul-blades.  Thark's fur was splattered with blood
by the time he reached the Ranger.  Menshikov's gun was coming to bear
on him even as Thark used darlas to attack.  A Ranger deserved that
much of honor, to die with @'s body unmarked.

But--Menshikov was shielded, impossible as that was!  An involuntary
shield, though, however good, was no match for Thark's lifetime of
training and experience.  Menshikov's face twisted in agony, and he
collapsed before he could scream.

Thark stared at the crumpled body for several seconds.  The man's
shield disturbed him more than he cared to admit, even to himself.  It
should not have existed!  Still, he thought, perhaps in the final
extremity, a rare human could show a trace of Talent; such things had
been known to happen on Irschcha.  He would check on it later, perhaps;
for now, it made no difference.

      *      *      *      *      *

Corina's attention returned to the lander, where she found herself and
Medart the focus of the entire assault team's intense interest.  *What
do you expect?* Medart sent grimly.  *That's the second Ranger murdered
in the Palace in less than two months--maybe others elsewhere,
depending on how widespread this Crusade is.*

*Probably others elsewhere,* Corina replied, equally grim.  *He will
not be content with one strike, and Rangers are essential targets for
anyone who seeks to greatly alter or destroy the Empire.  I fear for
those who are not in space or otherwise out of the Order's reach.*

*Me, too.*  He continued aloud.  "Did he sense you?"

"No.  As I thought, he is too intent on his task to notice a touch as
light as I am using.  Is there no way we can get there faster?  If he
continues at his present rate, everyone in the Palace may be dead by
the time we arrive."

"No, dammit," Hobison said.  "Hyperdrive is three lights per hour,
period, and we're still most of an hour out."

"Perhaps a few minutes," Nevan said.  "If Chang can make a sub-orbital
pass, we can save the descent from orbit."

That brought the group's attention to him, and Corina was struck by the
change in his bearing.  Everything about him was taut, ready: his eyes
held an eager gleam, and his smile was nothing like the happy one she'd
seen when she offered him this duty; instead it was one of deadly
anticipation, and he was seething with controlled violence.  It was
easy, seeing him this way, to believe stories that had been difficult
to accept earlier.  "Is that not quite dangerous?"

It was Medart who answered.  "For a standard human, it's almost
impossible.  For a battleprepped warrior, it's not too bad; they did it
quite a bit during the Incursion.  It'd save probably ten minutes."

"We will do so, then," Corina decided.  "Captain Hobison, would you
give the necessary orders?  And ask whoever is in temporary command to
notify Defsat Five when we land, please; I believe we may be too busy
to do it."

"Yes, sir."  Hobison left, going to the lander's controls.

Corina took another look at Nevan, then sighed--a human mannerism, but
one that seemed appropriate.  "I suppose I should return to my

"It would help to know what he's up to," Medart said.  "First, though,
I think you ought to check out Nevan's shield.  It seems battleprep
makes a difference in Talent strength, too."

Corina's ears went back briefly.  "Such things do not normally change,
but I will retest him."  When she touched the Sandeman's mind, her ears
went forward in amazement.  His shield, respectably strong before, now
had the density and chill feel of spacer-steel armor!

She nodded.  "This means a personnel switch.  Nevan now has a better
chance against Thark than Colonel Greggson does; he will accompany us,
and Colonel Greggson will assist with the other attackers."

Neither man raised any objection to the substitution, though Greggson's
expression was not pleased.  Nevan simply nodded, his eyes a bit

      *      *      *      *      *

Thark had entered the Palace by the time she made contact again, and
the slaughter was continuing.  He, Valla, Kainor, and four Sanctioners
were looking for the Emperor; the rest were spreading out to eliminate
opposition elsewhere in the Palace.

There were adequate maps of the public areas, none of the private areas
like this--but for one of Thark's Talent, that was a minor obstacle.
It was a simple matter to extract whatever directions he wanted from
the unshielded minds of staff and Guards before killing them.  His
first goal was the Emperor's working office; when that proved empty, he
got directions to His Majesty's apartment on the top floor, and led his
team there.

When that also proved to be empty, Thark began to worry.  Something was
definitely wrong, and it took longer to get around in the Palace than
he had expected, even for a building so huge; it took a good five
minutes simply to get from the bottom to the top floor or back.  Then
there was the time to find his objectives, made longer by having to
eliminate opposition on the way--this was taking too long!

The assault team on the lander disagreed; anything that delayed Thark
worked in their favor.  "How long till launch?" someone asked Nevan.

"Eight minutes.  Then about three to land."

Corina was aware of her team, so she heard the estimate, but her main
attention was still on Thark.  He and his people were on their way to
the Throne Room, hoping to find the Emperor there with his staff.
Others of the Crusade had been along parts of their route; they passed
bodies, all marked by blaster fire, and added others, unmarked or
knife-killed, of those who tried to block their way.  Thark was not
proud of the number of beings who had to die.  He had to remind himself
sternly--and repeatedly--that their sacrifice was necessary for the
birth of a new and greater Empire.

The Throne Room, when they reached it, was also empty except for a
handful of Guards.  Thark grabbed one of them while Valla and Kainor
killed the rest.

The man was a typical human, with no trace of screen, so Thark found it
simple to probe his mind.  And this time he went deep, digging for
everything the man knew instead of only for directions.  The results
were bad, very bad. Thark let the Guard's body fall and broadcast a
message to the entire attack group.  *No more killing.  I need
prisoners now, high-ranking ones.  Bring any you find to the Throne

As soon as he received acknowledgements, he called Valla and Kainor to
him.  "We have a serious problem.  The Emperor and Crown Prince have
left Terra, an option we did not consider, and this one," he indicated
the body, "did not know why or for what destination.  All he knew was
that they were picked up by a lander from the Empress Lindner day
before yesterday.  We must find and eliminate them, else the Crusade is

"If they are aboard a battle cruiser," Valla objected, "how can we
destroy them?  You know how powerful and well-armed those ships are."

Thark nodded.  "True.  But our ships are no smaller than Traiti
warcraft, and they destroyed several such cruisers without the
advantage of Talent to tell them the humans' intentions.  It will not
be easy, but it can be done."

"It will cost us many lives."

Thark agreed, somberly.  "I know.  Yet we cannot stop now.  We have
gone too far to fail."

Movement at the Throne Room's great door attracted his attention.  It
was Underofficer Jamar and another of his Sanctioners, half carrying
and half dragging a bound and bleeding prisoner toward him.  Thark
purred briefly, pleased.  The prisoner was better than he had expected,
a Ranger who would surely know the Emperor's location.  From the man's
condition, it was as well he had ordered the killing to stop when he
had, else he might have lost this valuable prisoner.

Aboard the lander, Corina heard swearing--which was interrupted by
Nevan's "Launch!" command.  A pressor beam sent them out the airlock
and through the cruiser's wake, the lander's engines screaming as its
pilot fought it through maneuvers it hadn't been designed for.  Corina
felt a sudden lurch of fear--could he do it?

*He's from Clan Leras and he's battleprepped,* Medart assured her.
*That part I'm not worried about--can you get anything else while we're
going in?*

*If his maneuvers do not become too violent.*  Corina re-established
contact, to find Thark studying the youngest of the Rangers--she was
the newest, but almost four standard years older than he--Ray Kennard.
Medium height and build, he was a fair-skinned redhead who might have
been handsome but for his injuries.  He had clearly resisted till he
could fight no more, yet despite his injuries and his obvious
weakness--he could barely stand--he seemed to radiate an aura of quiet
competence.  Thark felt grudging respect.  This human wasn't like the
tourists and administrators he was all too familiar with.

"How did you manage to capture him?" Thark asked the Sanctioners.

Jamar answered.  "We found him in the Comm Section just as we received
your message, Master.  We attacked before he could get his weapon out.
He fought well, as you can see, but he could not defeat two of us."
The Sanctioner hesitated.

"Go on," Thark urged him.

"Master Thark--he is shielded!  I could not read his intentions!"

"What!"  Not another one, Thark denied to himself.  He probed Kennard,
only to find the Sanctioner was right.  This man was shielded, at least
as well as Menshikov had been.  Could he, then, have been mistaken
about the human lack of Talent?

No.  He pushed that thought firmly aside, unable to accept it.

Kennard grinned at him, weak but triumphant.  "I am, huh?  Then Rina
was right--Jim's not a fluke.  You've blown it, traitor."

Corina lost contact as the lander lurched, making its firing pass over
Prowler, and then made a fast landing.  She was out of her seat almost
as quickly as Nevan, though he beat her to the door.  As soon as all
were outside, she said, "Our countdown starts now.  Go!"

She was badly disturbed by the bodies littering the landing pad.  Even
though she had watched him do it, she found it hard to believe the one
who had taught her so much could be responsible for this.  The Thark
she had been so sure she knew would never have been capable of such

She followed Medart's sudden movement toward the green-clad body
halfway to the Palace entrance.  He stopped, knelt to turn it over and
close staring eyes, then he looked up at Corina.  "Darlas.  He never
had a chance."

A taut, quiet voice interrupted.  "There is a living one we can still
help, sir."

Medart looked up into cold-steel eyes.  "Right.  Let's get to the
Throne Room, then."

Hobison and Greggson had already led the rest of the assault group
inside; Corina heard the Security Chief curse, then comment, "They'll
be easy enough to find, Captain.  Just follow the bodies."

"Yeah," Hobison agreed tonelessly.  "Split up, then.  You, Marshall and
Eustazio secure Communications; the rest of us will search-and-silence.
Double-check that your weapons are on stun, then go."

As soon as the rest were out of the way, Medart began leading the other
two through the Palace's private section.  Nevan would have been better
at point, but he couldn't know this part of the Palace--


Medart dropped automatically, heard a stun-bolt go by overhead, and saw
a gray-kilted Irschchan fall two corridors ahead.  "You okay, Rina?"

"I am fine."  Corina had also dropped at the warning; now both Rangers
stood.  She turned to the Sandeman.  "How did you do that?"

Nevan gave a tiny shrug.  "I heard @, probably.  Or saw a flash of
kilt, I can't be sure.  Since I knew it wasn't one of our people, I

Medart managed a chuckle, despite the circumstances.  "They call it
combat instinct, Rina--but I'm beginning to think it's an aspect of

"An aspect that works through a shield," Corina said.  "That will have
to be explored later--for now, we can only use it.  How much further?"

"Not much."  Medart began moving again, taking a straight line until he
made an abrupt turn that took them into a corridor with several
widely-spaced doors.  "Our offices--this hall brings us out behind the
Throne, but I have to check something.  Wait a minute."

He went into one of the offices, emerged seconds later.  "The security
cameras are getting the whole thing--we've got plenty of evidence.
Let's finish this up."

He led them through a door at the end of the corridor.  It opened
behind draperies; when the three stepped through those, Corina found
they were on the Throne's marble dais, two meters behind the plain,
high-backed wooden chair. She moved forward, between it and one of the
swirling-silver columns that flanked it.

The scene below her was sickening.  Bodies scattered around were bad
enough, but there was worse: Thark's calm, merciless beating of the
helpless Kennard, while Valla and Kainor looked on in apparent
approval.  These couldn't be the gentle, affectionate people who had
taught her with such patience over the last four years, now bloody and

Taking a deep breath, she stepped forward to the edge of the dais and
called, "Thark!"

He turned, startled, and looked up at her.  "Corina!" he exclaimed.
"What--"  Then he noticed the drab green kilt, totally uncharacteristic
of her.  Now what? he wondered.  He strode to meet her as she descended
from the dais, drawing his bloody soul-blade as he went.

Corina unsheathed her own blade, the movement attracting Thark's
attention to the bit of metal at her belt.  A human would have paled in
deep shock; Thark's only visible reaction was an agitated twitch of his

"You?  A Ranger?"  It was too much for him to accept.  First humans
with shields--blades, with Talent!--and now Losinj a Ranger?  "No!"

"It is true, Thark.  I am placing you under arrest for treason against
the Empire."

Thark started to answer, was interrupted by gunfire.  The Sanctioner
holding Kennard had let the human fall to go for his blaster; Nevan
dropped him, Valla, and three others while Medart shot Kainor and the
remaining Sanctioner.  His demoralization was completed when the
Sandeman said, "Good shooting, Ranger Medart.  Do you want that last
one, or may I take him?"

"Neither," Medart replied.  "He's hers--give me a hand with Kennard."

"Yes, sir."  Nevan holstered his blaster, and the two men went to kneel
by the fallen Ranger.

Corina stopped in front of her former teacher.  "You have seen and felt
the truth, Thark.  Will you continue to deny it and fight, or will you
do as you taught me honor requires?"

Thark gestured at the carnage around them.  "All this has been for

"I would not say that," Corina said.  "Your Crusade is the reason I was
able to become a Ranger and to discover and train--or begin training--
Ranger Medart's Talent."  She gestured to where Nevan was now standing
guard while Medart still knelt, his hands on Kennard's forehead and
chest.  "He is now using an aspect we never developed.  This human is a
healer, as well as having considerable darlas."

Thark shook his head.  "I cannot dispute your word, but it is difficult
to accept an idea that seemed impossible even an hour ago.  May I have
a demonstration of a human Talent I can understand?"

"If he is willing."  Corina called to her fellow Ranger.  "Jim!"

Medart looked up, anger plain in his face.  "What is it?"

"Thark wishes proof of your Talent."

"He'll get it," Medart promised.  Then Corina felt a blast of darlas
against her own shield.  Most of it, she knew, was directed at Thark,
but Medart's lack of control let her feel the fringes.  The power of
that blast was immense, as if the Ranger was releasing years of pent-up
energy at once, but it didn't last long; Thark was shaken, not hurt.

"That satisfy you?" Medart demanded.

"It does," Thark replied formally.  "Such proof cannot be denied."  He
turned back to Corina, feeling empty.  It had all come to nothing.  All
those lives wasted, all that blood on his hands--all for his mistakes.
"I have committed grave dishonor as well as treason, Ranger.  May I be
permitted to salvage what I can of my honor before I pay the other

Corina sheathed her dagger.  This was her old master once again, it
seemed.  Even in his treason he had acted as he believed honor
demanded; despite her fears to the contrary, it was clear he would
not--he could not--refuse honor's demands now.  "Halt the Crusade,
Master.  I will do what I can for those who followed you, if they
surrender immediately."

Master, Thark thought.  She had refused to call him that before, when
she had named him traitor.  He bowed his head, acknowledging her
authority--but there was one thing he still had to find out.  "You have
taught the use of Talent, Ranger Losinj, which should have increased
your own ability.  May I test, to find if it has had the effect I
believed it would?"

Corina inclined her head.  "You may, Master--but my new position
demands I take precautions.  Lieutenant DarLeras."

"Yes, sir?"

"This is not a combat situation, but should I appear to be weakening, I
may need your support.  Your shield is powerful enough that you should
be able to give it simply by wishing strongly to protect me.  Will

"Gladly, sir!"

Corina felt his shield reaching for her, and purred in amusement.  "Not
now, Lieutenant--only if I cannot protect myself.  I believe I know
what Master Thark has in mind, and it is important to Irschcha's future
that the results not be distorted."

Thark looked from her to the Sandeman, reached out gently, and touched
the strongest shield he had ever felt.  "You, too," he said in
resignation.  "Guard her well, warrior."

Nevan bowed.  If Ranger Losinj called him Master and showed him a
degree of respect, a junior officer could do no less.  "You have a
warrior's word on that, High Adept."

"That title is what I am testing."  Thark's attention went back to
Corina, and he struck with the full power of his darlas.

It hurt, but Corina was able to block any damage and strike back.  To
her astonishment, her blast penetrated Thark's shield and it was she
who had to pull back to prevent injury.

Thark held up both hands.  "Enough.  You have done even better than I
expected, which was to become my successor when I chose to retire.  You
have become stronger than I, which makes you High Adept by default.
And it seems only fitting, now, that a Ranger of the Empire be head of
the White Order." He broadcast a thought, seeming relieved at his
capitulation.  *Cease all resistance and surrender to the nearest
Imperial officer.  I have been wrong. The Crusade is truly simple
treason, and as its leader I command its dissolution.  Ranger Corina
Losinj is now High Adept of the Order, to be obeyed as such.*

There were astonished objections from those still able, especially the
ones not on Terra, but Thark overrode them.  *Do as I have commanded.
Honor cannot be denied.*

That brought acquiescence, sometimes grudged but real.  Medart felt it
and touched his throat, activating his comm implant.  "Chang, relay to
our assault team, then the appropriate parts to Imperial installations
elsewhere--and make sure Defsat Five is included.  Cease fire, the
Order has surrendered.  Bring any who are still conscious, and those of
the stunned ones you can manage, to the Throne Room.  Medart out."

Thark bowed to Corina, feeling only exhaustion and an odd sense of
relief.  It had been a noble dream, but it was now at an end, and he
had only one thing left to do.  "I will need a blaster."

Corina nodded.  "Lieutenant DarLeras," she called.

Nevan joined her.  "Yes, sir?"

"Give Thark your gun."

Nevan wanted to protest, but resisted the urge and handed the weapon
over--with a warning.  "Try to harm her, Master Thark, and you're the
one who'll die."

Thark felt unexpected amusement.  "I have committed enough dishonor,
young warrior.  I will not compound it by harming her.  I wish only to
destroy this blade, and so regain what I may of the honor I have lost."
He held up the bloody dagger that had, so long ago, had his mind-pattern
impressed on it.

Nevan bowed.  "I meant no disrespect, only to assure her safety."

"As you should, and will."  Thark switched the blaster to maximum
power, placed his soul-blade on the floor, and fired.

Then he screamed, a long full-throated yowl of absolute, terrifying
loss that subsided to broken whimpers as he collapsed beside the
smoking metal that had been a blade.

"What--" Nevan exclaimed in astonishment.

"Psychic shock, Lieutenant," Corina said.  "He will recover enough to
stand trial and serve whatever sentence he is given, but he will never
be whole again.  He has destroyed an essential part of himself.  Take
him to the medical unit, please, and see that he is cared for while
medteams find and treat the other survivors.  Can you find it?"

"Yes, sir."  Nevan pried his gun out of Thark's hand and holstered it,
then picked the Irschchan up.  "I'll be back as soon as I can."

      *      *      *      *      *

Three hours later, the Empress Lindner returned to Terra orbit, and
shortly thereafter one of its landers touched down beside Chang's.
Medart and Corina were waiting for the passengers in Emperor Davis'
working office, as he had asked; they had given him a complete report
during his trip back, and had in turn been given reports of what had
happened elsewhere in the Empire during the shortest-lived revolt in
its history.  The next step was His Majesty's decision as to what was
to be done about it.

The office showed no sign of the fighting just ended, and cleanup
elsewhere was already under way.  The Palace morgue was busy, the
medical center only a little less so; Hobison was there, in critical
condition, along with three less seriously wounded from the assault
group.  Greggson and one of the other Marines had been killed; the rest
of the group was unhurt. Kennard's injuries had been serious, but
thanks to Medart's help not fatal, and Senior Physician Zanivar had
said he'd be released later that week.

The two stood and came to attention as the Emperor entered, followed by
Crown Prince Forrest and a massive, gray-skinned Traiti in Marine
service black.  "As you were," Davis said, motioning the others to
chairs and seating himself at his desk.

He turned to Corina.  "You did a good job, Ranger.  I didn't expect it
to end so quickly."

"Had Thark been less honorable than he was, sir, it would not have."

"I'm aware of that, which is why he'll be sentenced to exile rather
than death--though in his condition, I'm not sure which would be

"To him," Corina said slowly, "it no longer matters.  His body
survives, but very little of Thark himself remains.  He can go through
the motions of life, that is all--and he has effectively wiped himself
from Irschchan memory.  His name and story will survive, of course, but
it will be without the mind-pattern in his blade to give it substance."

"He can still serve as an example," Davis said.  "The fact that he led
a rebellion because he was convinced it would be beneficial to everyone
doesn't excuse it--but the fact that he called it off and tried to
atone when he found he was wrong justifies my giving him what will be
seen as clemency by most people.  And it'll have at least one side
benefit."  Davis indicated the Traiti.  "Lieutenant Hovan spoke to his
Clan Mother at my request, and got her consent.  Thark's exile will be
on Norvis, guarded and taken care of by Clan Ch'kara.  That way he's
visibly punished, in a way that demonstrates the Empire's trust in our
newest citizens."

"An elegant solution," Corina agreed.  She turned to Hovan, gave him a
polite seated bow.  "I saw the tapes of your rulers' Audience,
Lieutenant.  I am pleased to meet one who can react so swiftly and

Hovan returned the bow, his arms crossed over his chest.  "You give me
too much honor, ka'naya Ranger.  When that man shot Ranger Tarlac, I
reacted the only way I could, as a newly commissioned officer of the

"It was well done, nevertheless."  Corina returned her attention to
Davis.  "I assume my next task, then, will be bringing Irschcha's
government into conformity with the rest of the Empire?"

"That's right.  You're head of the White Order now, so you'd have less
trouble than anyone else.  I'll give you a signed Confirmation of
Suzerainty for whoever you pick as Baron; from now on that's going to
be a hereditary position the way it is everywhere else outside Sector
Traiti--though if you think it best, I'll add a stipulation that the
Baron must have Talent."

"That would indeed be best, sir, at least at first."

"So be it, then.  Do you have anyone in mind?"

"Not at the moment.  I cannot even consider candidates until I know who
is available--in other words, who did not participate in the Crusade.
Then I will have to choose one who abstained because of loyalty to the
Empire, not because of fear."

Davis nodded.  "Do you have any idea how much of the Order will be left
for you to choose from?"

Corina's ears went back in a frown.  "That is difficult to say, sir,
though probably less than a quarter.  Those raised in Order schools are
almost certain to share Thark's convictions, and therefore to have
taken part.  I simply hope there are enough to form a new government; I
would prefer not to have to bring in unTalented, who would not be
accepted because of it."

"As long as you can manage to avoid me having to send in an occupation
force, I'll be satisfied.  You'll have Jim along, of course; it'll be a
year or so before I'll send you out solo, even if he didn't have a
convalescent leave to finish."

"I am most grateful for that, Your Majesty.  I have much to learn."

"Don't we all."  Davis leaned back.  "Now--have you been able to find
out more about human Talent potential?  Especially Rangers'?"

"Very little, I am afraid.  I was reluctant to tamper with the shields
of any of our assault group to check them further, but I did probe
Ranger Kennard while he was being treated, since his shield was
weakened by his injuries.  He does have good potential, though somewhat
less powerful than Jim's.  Since Captain Hobison and Lieutenant
DarLeras are both Ranger-level and shielded, as well, I would say that
hypothesis is correct."

"What about Rick and myself?"

It hadn't occurred to Corina to check the Emperor or Crown Prince; now
she did so.  "Both shielded, Your Majesty."

"Good.  Next time you're on Terra, you can train us; in the meantime
you can work with Jim, and I'll send the others to you for training as
I can spare them from other duties.  We'll worry about lower-ranking
ones with Talent later."

"Sir," Medart said.

"Yes, Jim?"

"What do you have planned for the rest of our assault group?"

Davis smiled.  "I think you can guess, for a mission that valuable to
the Empire that they didn't expect to come back from.  Since they're
military and risking their lives for the Empire is technically part of
their jobs, I can't quite justify Life Nobilities--but I can damnsure
give them Sovereign's Medals and merit promotions, plus choice of next

"That sounds good, except for Hobison," Medart said.  "He's already
refused promotion half a dozen times to keep command of the Chang."

"Considering his total career, that's one Life Nobility I can justify,"
Davis said.  "And I think he will take promotion if it doesn't mean
losing his ship."

"I think so too, sir."  Medart grinned.  "I like it--that'll make him
the only ship captain whose position title is lower than his Navy

Davis chuckled, then sobered.  "That's it, then.  I'll see you all at
the Tribunal, gentles--in the meantime, we all have work to do."  He

The others rose and bowed, then left.  Corina waited until she and
Medart were on an elevator to the Rangers' apartment floor, then she
said, "It is strange, Jim.  I was afraid to take this job, and I am
still not positive that I should have been offered it--but I find
myself enjoying even the danger and the responsibility."

"Which," Medart said with a grin, "should prove to you that you are
right for the job.  It's one challenge after another, and you'll
eventually run into one you won't get back out of--but in the meantime
you can be damn sure you won't be bored."

For a brief outline of the rebellion's consequences, see AFTRWORD


(A basic overview of the general situation and what happens to the main
characters between this story and the next one [either already written,
or just planned] that they appear in.)

Although the White Order rebellion was the shortest in Imperial
history, its active phase lasting only slightly over an hour, it was
the most disruptive.  Its purpose was to replace the nobility and key
military/administrative personnel; the Order members who were to be
those replacements, after killing their predecessors, were in place and
ready to strike days or weeks before Thark set the time.  In spite of
Ranger Losinj's warning, many succeeded, either because their targets
did not believe the seriousness of the threat, or because Talent was
able to overcome the precautions that were taken.

When all the reports were in, Imperial losses were staggering.  Three
Rangers were dead, one seriously injured, and over a third of the
ruling nobles, some with their heirs, had been killed--along with
approximately a quarter of the top-ranking planet-based military and
Admin Service officers.

Once the full extent of the disaster was assessed, Rangers Medart and
Losinj were reassigned, to separate missions.  Because of Losinj's
familiarity, however brief, with Chang's crew, Medart decided to change
ships rather than having her do so; he chose the Empress Lindner,
formerly Ranger Tarlac's ship.  Rangers Fenn and Scolacz were recalled
from Sector Traiti, which was unaffected by the rebellion because the
White Order had not had time since the War to infiltrate.  Rangers
Kennard and Forrest were also sent out on missions to help the
recovery; only Ranger Wang was kept on her original mission, but with
another sector added to her responsibilities.

In a brief meeting before Medart and Losinj left for Irschcha, Nevan
asked Medart's advice on how best to prepare himself should Ranger
Losinj accept his personal fealty once he felt he had enough experience
to be a suitable thakur-na.  He acted on that advice, though it proved
extremely difficult at times, and succeeded in a number of dangerous
missions; one of those earned him a second Sovereign's Medal, and was
followed within months by his second mission with Medart.

For the meeting between Medart and Nevan, see ADVICE


"Captain Nevan DarLeras to see Ranger Medart."

"He's expecting you, sir."  The Palace Guard opened the door to
Medart's office and stood aside to let the Sandeman pass.

Medart rose to greet his visitor, then gestured him to a chair and sat
back down as Nevan took the seat.  "Your note said you'd like to see me
about a personal matter, to be discussed under warrior privacy.  What's
the problem?"

"It's not exactly a problem, sir, and I'm not quite sure how to
approach it, even with a battle-companion.  You're familiar with our
custom of personal fealty."

That was a statement, not a question, but Medart nodded.  "Very
familiar; I'm also battle-companion to Lord Klaes' 'na, Gaelan-Frederick
DarShona.  Who are you planning on offering fealty to?"  As if he
couldn't guess, he thought.

Nevan was relieved at the Ranger's calm response.  "I would like to
serve Ranger Losinj, but she doesn't need an inexperienced young
officer, even a warrior.  Since I've been given my choice of
assignments, I was hoping you'd help me pick one that will give me the
kind of experience she's likely to need.  I'll just have to hope she
doesn't accept another 'na before I'm able to give her the kind of
service she needs."

Medart studied the young Sandeman for several moments.  "I can do
that," he said at last.  "But it's a type of work I think you'd find
distasteful, given your honesty, and given some of your cultural
conditioning, you could find the training for it intolerable.  Your
psych profile, though, says you're adaptable enough that you could
accept both, given adequate motivation."

Nevan frowned.  "I'm afraid I don't understand, sir.  I don't know of
any Imperial job I would find distasteful, much less intolerable."

Medart chuckled.  "Sure you do--it's covered at the Academy, though not
in great depth; the fact that you don't even like to think about it
proves my point.  But if you can manage the training, I think you'd
make an outstanding field agent."

"Field agent!" Nevan couldn't help it; he grimaced in revulsion.
"Those are--" he hesitated, then decided even one of High War Speech's
worst insults wasn't too strong--"nekulturniy."

Medart grew serious.  "Not at all, though I was sure you'd react that
way.  Nevan, field agents have as much integrity as anyone else in
Imperial service, and they're necessary.  Some investigations are
impossible to carry out openly--trying to find the Melgarie pirates'
base is a case in point. The only way it'll be found and destroyed,
other than by sheer accident, is by infiltration.  If it could be done
openly, it's big enough it'd be a Ranger's job; since it can't, field
agents go in.  To succeed, an agent will have to convince the pirates
@'s a criminal--probably have to take part in some crimes for that
purpose--to be allowed onto the base at all.  Then @'ll have to
convince them @'s trustworthy enough to be allowed access to the base's
defenses to determine their strength, and to communication facilities
to call in a strong enough Navy force to take the base out . . .
preferably coming out alive @self."

Medart paused.  He wished he could read the Sandeman's mind, but
Nevan's shield was definitely up.  Still, revulsion seemed to have
subsided to dislike, so he continued.  "That's lying, probably theft,
maybe murder.  But it's the only way we know to eliminate what's become
a major threat to inter-sector commerce, and is rapidly becoming worse.
Let me see if I can put it another way.  Field agents are people we can
trust to act against the Empire's short-term interests when, and only
when, that's necessary to protect its long-term ones.  It's always a
dangerous job, usually a nasty one, and the agents know very well that
most people share your opinion of them.  The only reason they put up
with all that is because they know how necessary it is."

"I . . . never thought of it that way," Nevan said slowly.  Sandeman
custom said that any sort of deliberate falsehood or deception was
wrong, a grave dishonor, and he believed that implicitly--but it
sounded like Ranger Medart was telling him that in some cases it was
not only honorable, it was praiseworthy!  That was a difficult concept
to absorb--yet a Ranger was as scrupulously honest as a warrior, unless
the Empire's very existence depended on one being otherwise, and Nevan
couldn't imagine a warrior's becoming a field agent was anywhere near
that important.

Another strong consideration was just which Ranger was giving him that
information and advice.  James Medart played a prominent role in
Sandeman history, one of the few standard humans they accepted as being
on a par with their warrior caste, and the one person they credited
with making their entry into the Empire on an honorable basis possible;
his words were to be given more than ordinary value.

After several moments' silence, Nevan nodded.  "Since you name it both
honorable and the best way to prepare for the service I hope to give
Ranger Losinj, I will do my best to become such an agent."  He paused,
went on less formally.  "If what you just told me--about field agents
having a position of special trust--was known in Subsector Sandeman,
any whose identity we knew would be honored, not scorned."

"And that's something I hadn't thought of," Medart said.  "If you're
willing to waive warrior privacy on that part of our discussion, I'll
be happy to pass it along to your clan-chief, the Vader, and the

"It is waived, but only on that part."

"Understood, warrior."  Medart strongly hoped Nevan would make it
through agent's training; outside of the unfortunate but inevitable
warrior's tendency to consider combat a preferred option rather than a
last resort, he had all the qualifications of a Ranger.  Whether Rina
accepted his offer of fealty or not, the Empire would have something
it'd never managed before: a Ranger-class field agent.  That would
frighten some people if they ever found out about it, Medart thought,
but he found it reassuring--especially since the prospective agent was
a Sandeman warrior.  "Would you like me to brief you on the training?"

Nevan thought for a moment, then shook his head.  "I'd rather go in
without preconceptions, since you say I'm likely to find parts . . .
not intolerable, since I intend to tolerate them, but extremely
difficult.  The fewer details I know, the fewer contingency plans I'll
automatically put together."

"That sounds reasonable," Medart agreed.  Especially since a warrior's
contingency plans tended to be violent . . .  "Do you have any idea
when you plan to offer fealty?"

"I was thinking of about five years," Nevan said.  "I do want as much
experience as I can get, and that's not a lot--but her people are
allergic to the anti-agathics, so I don't dare wait too long."

"True.  I'd say that was a reasonable compromise."  Rina was a year
younger than Nevan, but he was on anti-agathics and she couldn't
tolerate them; if he didn't get himself killed on the way, he'd
probably outlive her by close to two centuries.  "Is there anything

"No, sir."  Nevan stood, bowed.  "I thank you for your counsel, Ranger
Medart.  Gods permitting, I intend to follow it."

Medart rose and returned the bow.  "May they grant you success in both
your training and your offer."

                       Until next time . . .

[Preparer's note: This is the end of the main story.  The material
following this note is the supplementary material linked to from
elsewhere in this file.]


It was the end of Test Week at the Academy, almost time for the results
to be posted outside the cadet-candidates' dining hall, and all of them
were there waiting.  The results determined the incoming cadets'
initial standings, so James Medart was as eager--and as
apprehensive--about them as any of the others.

Promptly at 1300, the display board lit, and Medart skimmed the list
for the M's.  He was confident he'd made it through the grueling
tests--though even at this point, about a quarter didn't--and he was
hoping for a good ranking.  In the planet-wide testing, he'd rated #1.
That was good enough to get him to the main Academy at the Palace Complex
but everyone here had scored high on their home worlds; he wouldn't be
too disappointed, he told himself, as long as he made the top quarter.

When he found his name, though, it was all he could to to hold back a
whoop of delight.  He'd made #1 again, even in this picked group!  It
was Cadet Medart now, no longer Cadet-Candidate, #1 of the Class of
2516!  At least, he cautioned himself, until regular academic rankings
started coming out.  Then he'd be working hard to keep his rating, with
the rest working equally hard to take it over--but for today, coming
through Test Week on top was plenty of grounds for satisfaction.

The new cadets spent some time congratulating each other and
commiserating with those who'd be going to branch Academies instead,
then the group broke up to pack.  This afternoon was theoretically free
time, but the new cadets were anxious to move to the Academy proper,
the others to leave the scene of their disappointment, so within half
an hour Medart was back in his room.

He packed automatically, his mind busy.  He was relieved to have Test
Week behind him, still excited by his ranking, and trying for what felt
like the millionth time to decide on his third major when there was a
knock on the door.  He called, "Come in," expecting to see one of his
classmates or an upperclasswen, when he finished closing his carryall
and turned around.

The woman standing in front of the again-closed door was neither, and
Medart couldn't help staring at her in shock.  Outside the Palace
Complex no ordinary Imperial citizen, and very few nobles or officers,
could reasonably expect to see one of these people in the flesh.  He
tried to regain control, but when the woman said, "Cadet Medart?" all
he could manage was a nod.

The woman smiled.  "I'm sorry for the shock, Cadet.  I'm Ranger Arlene
Perry.  Do you have a few minutes to spare?"

This time Medart managed to find his voice, though it was a little
shaky.  "Yes, sir, of course."  Dear gods, he thought numbly, an
Imperial Ranger.  There were only ten in the entire Terran Empire, and
one had come looking for him.  That was astonishing in itself--and if
cadet rumor was right about the reason for such a visit, it was also

To his surprise, Perry chuckled.  That wasn't the sort of thing he'd
expected from one of His Majesty's personal representatives--it was too
ordinary.  So was her grin when she said, "I gather from your reaction
that you've heard the rumors about a post-Test Week visit from one of

Medart nodded.  From Perry's tone and expression, she was trying to
give him time to adjust, but he wasn't sure that would help.

"The rumor's absolutely true," Perry said.  "What do you think?"

His first impulse was to say she must be either joking or crazy, but he
knew better, and that kept him from answering right away.  Of course
he'd had the usual daydreams of himself in the forest green uniform and
platinum badge, but he'd never seriously thought of himself as one of
this premier elite.  He didn't feel qualified, and the idea of taking
on a Ranger's tremendous responsibilities terrified him.  The authority
and prerogatives were tempting--dear gods, who wouldn't want to be
Imperial royalty, with unlimited money and power?--but it was the
responsibilities that were his primary concern. A military officer's
mistake could endanger a ship, maybe a fleet at the worst; a Ranger's
mistake could endanger anything from a world or system all the way to
the Empire itself.  That was easily intimidating enough for him to want
to turn Perry down flat.  It wasn't at all the sort of thing he cared
to have on his conscience.

After several minutes, he shook his head.  "That's very flattering,
sir, but you have the wrong person.  I don't think I have what it takes
to handle that kind of power."

Perry chuckled.  "The classic answer.  Jim, all your test results were
fed into the Empire Net and analyzed.  The comps saw you had the kind
of profile we're interested in, so the Net kicked your records up to
the closest Ranger, who happened to be me.  I agreed, so I brought them
to His Majesty's attention.  He agreed, so I'm here.  Care to argue
that combination?"

Medart took a deep breath.  "With all due respect, sir, I don't have
any choice, since I can't agree.  I think I know myself pretty well;
I'd make a good Navy officer, maybe even captain of a battle cruiser--
but not a Ranger."

Perry sat down on Medart's bed, next to the carryall.  "Good.  Believe
it or not, Jim, that's exactly the response we were hoping for.  If you
did want the job, thought right away you could handle it, you'd be an
arrogant fool--and you'd have disqualified yourself, even this late.  I
know it's hard to understand that feeling unqualified is part of what
makes you qualified, but history proves that in most cases, people who
want power are the last ones who should have it.  There are a few
exceptions, of course, but we're talking about the vast majority.

"What we want are people who have the necessary ability and a
reasonable amount of ambition, but who aren't interested in power for
the sake of power itself.  It's a delicate balance, and we may miss
some who qualify because we prefer to take no chances on power-hunger--
but you can be positive that if you are tapped, you do qualify."

Medart hesitated, then nodded reluctantly.  He knew as well as anyone
that the Empire was chronically short of Rangers.  There were never
enough, even when there were more than the average of ten.  It was also
common knowledge that however few there were, the selection criteria--
whatever those were--were never lowered.  They might be, and had been,
raised; the opposite, never.  So however unqualified he felt, he could
be positive, as she said, that he was in fact fully qualified.

And he'd applied for the Academy because, as far back as he could
remember, his goal in life had been to serve the Empire to the best of
his ability.  Until Perry had entered his life, he'd thought that meant
the military, like the rest of his family.  Now he was told there was a
far more essential service the Empire wanted of him.  That, he thought,
had to take precedence over his fear of the responsibility--and they
must have known he'd feel that way.

"In that case, sir--it scares me more than I want to admit, but if you
and His Majesty want me for the job, I have to try."  He hesitated,
then said, "Which you probably knew, from my psych tests, before I

Perry's smile was relieved.  "We hoped, and we thought the odds were
good--but we didn't know.  Good as the indicators are, we do have some
refusals.  Welcome to Imperial service, Ranger Medart."

Ranger Medart.  The idea still scared him, but he had to admit he did
like the way it sounded.  "Thank you . . . uh, what do I call you now?"

"Arlene in private, Ranger Perry in public.  And His Majesty is `sir'
to you now, not `sire'." She grinned.  "I think civvies would be more
appropriate than probationary-cadet clothing, and I have a sidearm for
you outside the door.  His Majesty will give you your badge when we get
to the Palace.  Okay?"

"Uh, yes, of course.  Isn't there some sort of oath or something?"

"You don't need it.  There'll be a confirmation ceremony after your
initial leave, emergencies permitting--but the fealty oath you'll take
there is for the public, not for yourself."

      *      *      *      *      *

Medart was a little disappointed that Perry's uniform was hidden by a
cloak when he got changed and left his room, and that the trip to the
Palace was in an unmarked car, but she explained that was simply to
give him enough private time to notify his family of his selection
personally before His Majesty made the official announcement.  "Take
advantage of privacy whenever you get the chance," she advised.  "You
won't get it often, especially at first--and you'll want to make
arrangements for SecuDiv to protect your family from the more
persistent newsies, at least until the novelty of your selection wears

"I hadn't thought about newsies," Medart admitted.  "In fact, there's
probably a lot I'm not thinking of right now."

"Very probably--and that's another reason for initial leave. Adaptable
as we have to be, it's quite a shock going from cadet-candidate to
Ranger; it'll take you a couple of days to get back to normal.  So the
routine is to meet the Sovereign, then go home until you're satisfied
your family is taken care of and you're ready to face the media.  Then
you spend a year or two in OJT with another Ranger--me, in this case--
and then you pick your ship and start your solo missions."

A year or two didn't sound like much, considering the variety of
situations a Ranger got involved in, but Medart nodded.  "I understand.
And I'll have to do things like get a comm implant--take care of all
that sort of detail before I go on duty officially."

"That's best," Perry agreed, "though if we were rushed, or you thought
it best to go public right away, those could be handled later.  If you
want a comm implant, though, I can arrange for that as soon as your
audience is over."

"I don't exactly want one, but I thought they were required."

Perry chuckled.  "His Majesty leaves that up to us.  The only surgery
we're required to undergo is what's medically necessary.  I think an
implant is a good idea, and I'd strongly recommend it, but no, it's not
required. There are a couple of us who chose not to have them."

"I think I'll take your recommendation," Medart said.  "Though it may
not be too much use outside the System, since I can't carry an
ultrawave unit around with me."

"True, but it'll still provide you a direct link to your ship, or to
any planetary comp or military base you're within radio range of, and
if necessary you can link to the Empire Net through one of those--
though it's usually easier, if you have to contact it, to just use the
normal communicators.  Want me to set up the implant for you?"


      *      *      *      *      *

They arrived at the Palace's private entrance not long after Perry
finished making the arrangements, and she escorted Medart to Emperor
Yasunon's working office, down a wide corridor to a door that was
decorated with the Imperial Seal and flanked by two Palace Guard
officers who came to attention as they approached.  "Rangers Perry and
Medart to see His Majesty," she told them.

"He's expecting you, sirs."  The senior opened the door, and Perry,
grinning, gestured Medart through first.

He had seen the Emperor's picture any number of times, on everything
from holo-news to currency, so the chubby, balding man was no
surprise--but His Majesty's obvious enthusiasm was.  The Emperor came
around his desk and grasped both of Medart's hands, smiling widely.
"Ranger James Medart!  You're the best thing that's happened to me in

"I'm flattered to hear that, Your Majesty."  Almost as flattered as he
was stunned by the unexpected greeting.

Yasunon released his hands and reached into a compartment on his belt--he
was wearing a Ranger's uniform, with the Imperial Seal--and pinned
the star-in-circle badge to Medart's tunic, then repeated Perry's
greeting.  "Welcome to Imperial service, Ranger Medart."

"Thank you, Your Majesty."  Medart felt a surge of deep emotions he
couldn't identify, except for the determination to do everything in his
power to justify their faith in him.  He still had doubts of his
ability to do that, but the badge's weight on his chest left him with
no doubts that he'd try.  "As soon as I make the arrangements for my
family that Ranger Perry suggested, I'd like to start work."

"Since you're from Terra, that shouldn't be too long," Yasunon said.
"I should start preparations for your confirmation, since there don't
seem to be any situations nearing the critical point; how long would
you like?"

"A week should be more than enough," Medart said, after a moment's
thought.  "I'll need a ride to the airport near my home, then I'll have
to borrow a car to get the rest of the way."

"No problem," the Emperor said, a smile starting to grow.  "The
arrangements have already been made; a lander's waiting to take you to
the airport, and a Texas Ranger car will be waiting for you there."

Medart was surprised for a second, then he chuckled.  "I like Your
Majesty's sense of humor."

"What can you expect when Emperor Chang set it up this way?"  Yasunon
was smiling widely.  "It's one of the requirements."


She was eighteen Standard, not quite fifteen Irschchan years old,
basking in the sun beside a fountain as she considered the merits of
various young males as mate potential.  She wasn't really interested in
being tied down that way, and hoped to avoid it by going to the
Academy, but on such a nice day, why not indulge her parents' more
conventional desires?

Loren of the Order was probably the best match genetically, and
socially of course a mate in the Order was desirable.  Still, though he
was nice enough, he simply wasn't very bright.  Lovad Koversa might be
all right; he was quite intelligent, if no more Talented than she--

Suddenly she heard him talking to himself about the Academy, though she
hadn't heard him approach.  "Lovad?" she called, sitting up and looking
around.  As soon as she did that, the voice disappeared.  He was
nowhere in sight, and she wondered with some irritation what kind of
stunt he was up to now.

That was Lovad's worst point: he was a joker, and liked to use his
knowledge of electronics to play tricks.  It was never anything
harmful, though, just annoying.  She got up, deciding to see if she
could turn it against him.  None of the trees near the fountain had
trunks large enough to hide behind, so she wandered around, looking up
through the silvery-green foliage to find him.  No trace; he must have
come up with a long-distance gadget and was trying it out on her.

She'd get back at him somehow, but meanwhile this day was too nice to
waste worrying about him.  She returned to the fountain and stretched
out again, relaxing to the sound of the falling water.  She thought
idly of her mother, who owned a moderately prosperous kilt shop.  An
indignant Mother: *Trade vegetables for kilts indeed!  This is no
back-country village--*

She sat up again suddenly, and again the voice disappeared as she
tensed.  This couldn't be one of Lovad's jokes, not with her mother
involved. It had to be telepathy . . . and that meant she did have
Talent . . . and that meant . . .


As she explained, Nevan could feel himself beginning to smile.  She was
offering him a chance at real combat, at what he had trained for since
his fifth birthday, and she thought he might refuse?  He'd missed the
war by less than two weeks, a disappointment made worse by his
assignment to SecuDiv rather than the Combat Division.  Now he would
get to fight!

And he would be doing so beside one who had proven herself a warrior's
equal, though her combat skills were of a different type.  To his
surprise, he found himself imagining as a real possibility something
he'd thought of before only as a remote theoretical chance.  It wasn't
because of the demonstration, though the way she had defeated them had
a bearing, and it wasn't because she'd become a Ranger.  He couldn't
pinpoint the reason; there was just something about this beautiful
felinoid that convinced him she was worthy of the greatest service and
gift a Sandeman warrior could offer.

The strength of that conviction would have made it easy for him to
kneel to her and offer his personal fealty, but he wasn't sure he was
the one who should do it.  He was young and inexperienced, barely seven
months out of the Academy; her thakur-na should be a veteran, with at
least a few missions to his credit.  Later, he might be qualified--but
by then she might have another thakur-na.  He could only wait, work,
and hope.

[Preparer's note: the RENDAVI material is placed here because it
does not seem to be referenced from elsewhere in this file.]


Thark landed the Prowler at the rendezvous on Rendavi slightly over
eighteen hours after leaving Irschcha.  He was well rested and in a
cheerful mood as he, Kainor, and Valla left the ship for the improvised
conference hall.

No other ships were there yet.  Unfortunate, Thark thought.  That meant
the meeting--more accurately, war council--would be delayed, possibly
for several hours.

Inside the hall, the trio from the Prowler seated themselves on
cushions at the head of the low conference table, talking about nothing
in particular while they waited for the rest of the Seniors and Crusade
leaders to gather.

Those were trickling in slowly when, a little over five hours after
Prowler's arrival, an orange-kilted messenger appeared at the door and
tried to attract Thark's attention.  He waved her to his side, listened
attentively to the message she murmured in his ear, then dismissed her.

The last group of Seniors arrived and seated themselves.  Thark went
through the brief formalities of convening the Prime Chapter, then
said, "It is my unpleasant duty to report to you that this Crusade has
been betrayed by a young pre-initiate who discovered it existence by
accident, from me."

A ripple of disturbance moved through the assembled Irschchans.  Most
of what Thark could pick out were expressions of disbelief that anyone
with Talent could do such a monstrous thing.

Valla's clear voice penetrated the disturbance, silencing the Seniors.
"So Losinj escaped both the Sanctioners and Entos."

There were more expressions of disbelief, stronger this time.  Thark
silenced them.  "According to the message I just received, it is not
only possible, it has happened, and worse.  She made it past both, and
into the Planetary Palace.  Ranger Medart, who was unfortunately on
Irschcha at the time, arrived two hours later.  His lander, presumably
with him and young Losinj aboard, left for his orbiting battle cruiser
soon afterward."

He turned to his chief aide.  "Valla--I am sorry to be the one to tell
you this, but Medart also sentenced Entos to death for attempted murder
on Imperial territory.  The sentence has been carried out."

Valla growled with an intensity that should not have surprised him but
did.  "Entos was my best operative, and a friend.  I claim Ranger James
Medart as my personal prey."

"Granted," Thark agreed promptly.  "But now to planning.  With Losinj
aboard Medart's ship, it is possible, even probable, that she will be
helping him.  Even if such is not the case, we must assume it is, and
that means our first strike must be decisive.  Valla, does this affect
your plans for our assault on the Imperial Palace?"

"Possibly," his aide replied.  "If Losinj is helping Medart, and they
reach Terra in time, our assault team will be faced by a fairly strong
Talent. She may be able to incapacitate one or more, and we need all
our strength. Although there are enough Seniors to defeat her, she may
introduce complications."

"Since she was my student, and it was my error which caused her to
become a problem, she is my responsibility."  Thark's ears went back
briefly. He had seriously misjudged her; he could not honorably ask
anyone else to correct his error, now that she was no longer his guest.
But making that correction would not be a pleasant task.

He went on.  "Kainor, what about your status report on the Rangers?"

"Crown Prince Forrest is at the Imperial Palace on Terra," Kainor said.
"So are Kennard and Menshikov; all three are covered in Valla's assault
plan. Fenn and Szolacz are in the new Traiti Sector, assisting in its
integration; they must be disregarded for the present, since we have no
Order members there.  Ellman and Steinhauer are still in hospital, and
my agents are in position to kill them as soon as the strike time is
set.  Wang has just been sent to Sector Twelve to take over its
administration, since its Duke died with no heir; being aboard a battle
cruiser, she is presently out of reach and will have to be dealt with
later.  Tarlac, of course, is already dead; we have all seen the tapes
of his assassination.  Medart is the only one in a position where he
might be an immediate danger.  If Losinj got this location when she
probed you, Thark--"

"She did not," Thark assured him.  "She did no real probing, in fact.
She was far too upset by her simple discovery of the Crusade's
existence to check any more deeply."

Kainor nodded.  "Good.  Despite that, our first strike will not only
have to be decisive, it will have to be swift.  The fact that a
powerful Imperial officer has become aware of the Crusade means their
forces will be mobilizing.  We must act before they can be fully
alerted and deployed.  Even led by Rangers, that will take them a
certain amount of time which we can put to good use."

Thark agreed.  "Speed is certainly essential.  I will adjourn this
meeting shortly; I want the various operational group leaders to meet
separately and determine exactly how soon you can be ready to move.
Report to me as soon as you can.  The Seniors will remain here with me.
Are there any questions?"

"The Traiti, Master," a graying female said.  "They have pledged
loyalty to the Empire.  What threat do they pose?"

"Little as yet," Thark replied.  "Their casualties in the war were far
heavier than the Empire's, and their military has barely begun the
changeover to Imperial service; for the moment they are too
disorganized to pose a true threat.  Is there anything else?"

There was nothing.  "One final detail before we adjourn," Thark said.
"We will be operating on Palace Standard Time from this point on, so
adjust your chronos accordingly.  This meeting is adjourned until 1600
hours, that time."

      *      *      *      *      *

By 1600, when the full council reconvened, Thark and the Seniors had
received reports from all the operational groups and had finalized
their plans.  Thark rose and addressed the group.

"This is the most important turning point in both human and Irschchan
history," he told them, trying to project his solemnity.  "What we are
planning here, what we will soon accomplish, will determine the course
of civilization for centuries to come.  We dare not fail, for if we do,
the galaxy will continue under human rule, their lack of Talent causing
them to stumble from crisis to crisis, a whisker's width from disaster
and complete chaos at any moment.  Worse, they will drag us along with
them.  It is symptomatic that except for Irschcha itself, our people
have no voice in Imperial government.

"I am the highest Irschchan official, its Baron in their terms--the
lowest of the Imperial nobility.  All other nobles outside the Traiti
Sector are human.  There has never been an Irschchan Ranger, so we
cannot hope for an Irschchan Sovereign unless we succeed."

He paused and scanned the group lightly, sensing their approval of his
words.  "If we succeed, however--when we succeed--we will bring the
Empire the same peace and stability the White Order has brought
Irschcha since its triumph.  The humans may find it difficult to accept
at first--they seem to actually enjoy disorder--but they will soon come
to realize the superiority of rule by the Talented.  The change may in
fact be difficult for our own people as well, but in the long range,
things will be better for all three races."

He paused again, then spoke in a more matter-of-fact tone.  "These are
the final plans.  The last operational group can be in position by 0145
two days from now.  Allowing an hour for the inevitable delays, I am
setting the strike for 0245.  It is vitally important that no warnings
be given.  Since Losinj got no details of the Crusade from me, any
alert that Medart puts out will have to be a general one.  Losinj may
be able to make some guesses, since she does know me, but the Empire
will not dare depend on those.  Except for the Palace itself, then, our
objectives should be no more heavily defended than any others unless we
ourselves attract attention to them in some way.

"The Seniors and I, together with thirty-six Sanctioners, will take
Prowler to Terra, leaving here in time to attack the Palace in
coordination with the rest of you, at 0245.  I wish the assault force
could be larger, but anything more would certainly be stopped by the
primary defense satellites. Therefore, we must use the strongest
Talents available, and those Sanctioners who are most proficient with
weapons, to compensate for the greater number of Palace Guards."

An elderly Irschchan in a dark blue plaid kilt rose.  "Will that be
sufficient if Losinj is there and opposes you?"

"Yes," Thark replied without hesitation.  "Admittedly she is strong,
but she is only one person; she will, at worst, slow me somewhat."

He returned to the original subject.  "Once we eliminate the Emperor
and any Rangers there, we should have no major problems.  We will have
enough telepaths on hand to screen any humans in positions to cause
trouble, and any of those who plan to do so we will kill.  Afterward,
we can replace the nobility with our own initiates, on the basis of
strength of Talent.  That is far more logical, and will insure far more
stability, than the hereditary system now in use."

"One more question, if I may, Master?"  That came from a young male in

"Go ahead," Thark said.  "We have time."

"I have heard rumors that some humans have developed Talent."

Thark projected amusement, was joined by several others.  "It has been
rumored indeed," he said.  "Stories from long ago, before the Empire,
do hint at some, but the strongest of those legendary humans would be
about equivalent to a first-year student.  There are not even rumors
from more recent times."

"With respect, Master, what of the Narvonese Dragon-Kindred and their
ability to project emotion?"

"An intriguing novelty," Thark acknowledged, "but hardly either Talent
or useful, except in a very limited sense."

"Still, if there are any--"

"We can worry about hypothetical situations later," Thark said in mild
reproof.  He didn't blame the youngster for asking, but facts were
facts: humans just were not Talented!

"Enough discussion," he said finally.  "You all have your assignments
and you know the schedule."  He briefly considered dismissing them with
the final lines of an old battle chant, but decided against it.  It
translated poorly, and few of the younger ones here used anything but
Imperial English. He settled for, "Go, and fight well."

*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "A Matter of Honor - A Terran Empire novel" ***

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